by Mary C. Curtis
As Ben Jealous prepares to step down from his leadership post at the end of this year, there is no question that he brought stability and visibility in his five years as the president and CEO of the NAACP.
Now, as members and observers give Jealous a proper celebratory sendoff, they are also looking to the future of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. How is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, tackling 21st-century challenges and what is its relationship with other civil rights organizations?
There is still much work for the NAACP in a nation where, with its help, progress has been made but where inequality remains. Many issues look familiar. For example, at this year’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, voting rights and income inequality battles topped the agenda in 2013, as in 1963. However, some tactics and players had changed.
At the Aug. 24 “Realize the Dream” event the weekend before the official anniversary with President Obama in attendance, tens of thousands gathered on the National Mall to hear speeches by Jealous and others.
It was, however, the Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network (NAN) – a host alongside the NAACP and others – center stage at the Lincoln Memorial. Sharpton walked arm in arm during the march with U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia — a young SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) leader when he spoke in 1963 — and Martin Luther King III.
The two organizations with different histories have worked together on events. Both have weighed in on racial profiling, recently in the response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting.
In a Miami rally that was part of 100 NAN-led events across the country, Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin’s father, appeared with Bishop Victor Curry, president of the South Florida chapter of NAN and director of the southeast region. In the past, Curry served two stints heading the Miami-Dade NAACP, the last term ending about a year and a half ago, he told theGrio.
“I have nothing but respect for the NAACP,” Curry said, praising its longevity. “Being around over 100 years, that says a lot about the organization. But I think sometimes a discouraging aspect of working with an organization that has been around that long, sometimes it becomes top heavy.”
He said, “Before you can get things done in your local branch you go through so many different layers of leadership, and by the time you get approval from everybody the situation you’re dealing with on the ground has almost passed.”
“That was what was refreshing with me from Reverend Sharpton,” Curry said. “He gives his chapter presidents a lot of leeway to deal with what’s going on in their communities.”
In his first time as head of the Miami-Dade NAACP, Curry, who pastors two Baptist churches and is president, general manager and talk-show host at a radio station, said the national sent him a letter telling him to “cease and desist” his on-air criticism of the organization’s position — in the aftermath of a rash of police shootings — not to reconsider a decision to hold its convention in Miami Beach.
“We needed the NAACP to think about not coming,” he said. “Instead of them wanting me to discuss it they told me to shut up. I’m on the ground; I’m having to bury these young men. For the national to do that that kind of hurt me.” When the federal government subsequently indicted 11 police officers, Curry felt a measure of vindication.
National Action Network, founded in 1991, says in its mission statement that it “works within the spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote a modern civil rights agenda.” Curry said he favors that “preacher-friendly” tradition, “birthed out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
Curry said he spoke with longtime friend Sharpton about working together. Sharpton’s MSNBC show Politics Nation provides a Monday-to-Friday cable megaphone. Though NAN has chapters throughout the nation, its personality is tied to Sharpton, its founder, and his swift reaction to controversies.
“You don’t try to stifle that,” said Curry. “You ride the wave. You strengthen the organization so that when it’s time for these others chapters to fly, they can fly.” He said, “I believe NAN is strong enough and has enough strong chapter leaders.”
Mississippi Field Secretary Medgar Evers was murdered for his civil rights organizing in 1963; his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, became the third woman to chair the NAACP in the 1990s. Some say it is time for another woman to lead the group.
“Most people don’t understand what the NAACP has always understood, and that is that movements come from the bottom up, not from the top down,” Rev. Dr. William Barber, North Carolina NAACP president, told theGrio. The organization initiated and has led “Moral Monday” demonstrations — noted for the diversity of the thousands who participated — which continue to protest a conservative wave of legislation enacted by Republican super-majorities in the state legislature.
“When you become president of the NAACP, you don’t have to field an organization in North Carolina, you have one. You don’t have to field an organization in Mississippi, there already is one, with leadership that gives their lives to this work voluntarily. … That’s been the power and the consistency of it,” he said. “President Jealous was able to put forward a vision to expand on an already strong foundation.”
“Sometimes people mistake deliberation for slowness,” Barber said. “The NAACP is deliberate when it gets involved in an issue. We’re not a helicopter organization; we don’t just pop in and pop out. In North Carolina, we didn’t just have a march, we started a movement.”
He said the North Carolina group’s activism goes back years, when Democrats were in office, “pushing through same-day registration, early voting and Sunday voting and the Racial Justice Act, more money for education, standing up against voter ID when it first came up, suing over redistricting and building relationships with our coalition partners.”
After arrests at the first Moral Monday, “it sent a signal to people we already had relationships with — over 13 weeks, 1,000 arrested. That didn’t happen because a William Barber popped into North Carolina, gave a speech and popped out. It happened because the NAACP has a history of grassroots, branch-up work.”
Barber said, “No human organization is perfect. But very few organizations can look at its [sic] track record and say every major victory we’ve ever won on the national and the state level bettered America.” After Jealous, “whoever is CEO,” said Barber, “male, female, young, old, whomever God sends, first thing is they become not so much a CEO but the leader of the largest volunteer civil rights program in the world.”
In telling its history, which includes the names W.E.B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks and Charles Hamilton Houston, the NAACP acknowledges occasional friction with groups that advocated more direct action. “Although it was criticized for working exclusively within the system by pursuing legislative and judicial solutions, the NAACP did provide legal representation and aid to members of other protest groups over a sustained period of time,” the group’s website says.
Curry, of NAN in Miami, said, “I’m not naïve. I know back in the day, all of the civil rights organizations weren’t always on the same page. They were mature enough to put aside their difference for a greater cause.” He said, “I think it’s going to take all of the organizations working together in order to keep the powers that be [with their] feet to the fire.” He also said he is a big William Barber fan.
Barber, who has been a guest on Sharpton’s MSNBC show, said, “The true reality of the first March on Washington is that Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph insisted and demanded that people not be stuck in their egos — whether it be organizational ego or whether it be personality ego. What we must understand, particularly in the south, is you cannot have social, political and economic victories without fusion politics.”
As was the case 50 years ago, when leaders of a host of civil rights groups, from the National Urban League to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and others shared the stage and the job of challenging the country to live up to its promise of equal rights for all, the job is still big enough to keep different organizations plenty busy.
For now, those organizations are planning their next steps, separately and together.