[Originally published in The Economist]
But America’s oldest civil-rights outfit is redefining its role
DURING the summer of 1908, riots raged through Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. The quiet removal of two black men who had been held in prison as suspects in two separate attacks on white people enraged the white community. They took out their anger on black residents and black-owned businesses and properties. The riots went on for two days and simmered for longer; seven people were killed and some $200,000 worth of damage was done.
The following February, partly in response to the Springfield riots, a group of Jewish, white and black activists met in New York to found the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) whose aim was, and remains, to ensure “the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination”.
The NAACP celebrated its centenary on February 12th. It has played a leading role in bringing down racial barriers, notably in overturning Jim Crow laws and in its work on the 1954 case of Brown v Board of Education, which brought about the desegregation of America’s schools. But the changes in America since then have also brought challenges. America now has its first black president; evidence, to some, that the NAACP’s work is done.
Benjamin Jealous, who recently took over as the NAACP’s youngest ever president, at 36, disagrees. “There are still a lot of things to be angry about,” he declares. “Young black people in the US are the most incarcerated people in the world. They understand, by virtue of their situation and that of their peers, that the movement for civil rights in this country is very much needed and groups that played critical roles in removing the shackles that bound our forefathers and foremothers still play a role today.” The statistics back him up. The unemployment rate for black Americans is 12.6% compared with 6.9% for white Americans; their life expectancy five years less; and black infant mortality rates are twice the national average.
Mr Jealous’s youth may help him with another challenge. In the 1960s the NAACP boasted around half a million members. Membership has since dropped to less than 300,000, out of a population of some 41m African-Americans. Many people think that a generational divide, which has seen those who have grown up in a more integrated America become increasingly estranged from the organisations and leaders who fought for their rights, is to blame.
In a segregated America, the NAACP’s role in helping the black community was undeniable. But that has changed: a recent Gallup poll revealed that nearly 70% of Americans, the highest number it has ever recorded on this issue, believe that relations between black and white Americans “will eventually be worked out”. And these days it is Hispanics, who also face big inequalities, that make up the largest minority, not blacks. The NAACP’s approach is shifting accordingly; the black minority needs allies. Mr Jealous, in fact, reckons his task is now about “organising a plurality”. If the NAACP is going to regain its former pre-eminence “the way that we talk about issues, the way that we build coalitions and the nature of the struggle at this moment” must be “in universal terms”. That Mr Jealous is the son of a white father and a black mother may help him.
The work of the organisation, though, has not changed so very much. Mr Jealous says his main concerns are still the quality of schools, the jobs market and the quality of the justice system. But activism, too, must now be colour-blind.