Mfume Out, But NAACP's Troubles Remain

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said all the right things when he announced his resignation. He praised the work of the organization, its top officials, promised to seek new challenges, and said he'd spend more time with his family. Despite Mfume's sweetness and light words, he bailed out at a time when trouble is brewing for the nation's oldest civil rights organization. The membership has stagnated, and the IRS is knocking hard on its door to see if it violated its non-partisan tax-exempt status with Bush bashing speeches by NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, and the NAACP's over the top tout of Democratic candidates.

The NAACP can't drum up new members because it has been missing in action in recent years on many of the crisis issues that tear black communities. The NAACP wasted valuable time, energy and resources fighting with South Carolina officials over whether the Confederate flag should be removed from the statehouse. The flag is a repulsive, antique symbol of the South's grotesque racial past. But it's just that, a symbol. If South Carolina had stuffed the flag in a museum vault, it would've been a hollow victory. It would not have saved one black farm, improved failing public schools, increased funds for historically black colleges, created more jobs, or reduced poverty for South Carolina's blacks.

At its last couple of conventions, Bond's rag on Bush, and the NAACP's dramatic announcement that it would call corporations on the carpet for not doing more to hire and promote blacks grabbed headlines. But this does nothing to solve the mountainous problem of the HIV/AIDS plague, drugs, crime and gangs, soaring joblessness, and the astronomical prison incarceration rate among young blacks. Long before Mfume's resignation, black activists hammered the NAACP as an organization that lived off its rep from its past, but abysmally failed to fight hard for the poor. Black conservatives hammered it as an ineffective organization that was politically out of step with the post-civil rights generation of younger more conservative business and professional oriented blacks.

The NAACP's slow retreat from visible cutting edge activism on the thorny racial and economic problems of the black poor can be directly traced to the fight against legal segregation in the 1960s. The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the class divisions that have imploded within black America, and the greening of the black middle-class reshaped the economic and political landscape of black America. By the close of the 1960s the civil rights movement had spent itself. The torrent of demonstrations, sit-ins, marches and civil rights legislation annihilated the legal wall of segregation. With the barriers erased the black middle-class sped up the mobility ladder.

Many packed up their bags and started their headlong flight from inner cities to greener suburban pastures. They owned more and better businesses, marched into more corporations, and universities, spread out into more of the professions, won more political offices, bought bigger and more expensive homes, cars, clothes, and jewelry, took more luxury vacations, and joined more country clubs than ever before. The NAACP became the political springboard for this fast emergent black middle-class. It fought hard to get more blacks in corporate management, in elite universities, in front of and behind TV cameras, elect more black Democrats, secure more business loans, and, of course, against the Confederate flag.

These battles, however, did not have the remotest bearing on the lives of the black poor. They have grown more numerous, more desperate, are trapped in segregated or re-segregated neighborhoods, shuttle their children off to abominably failing public schools, are plagued by crime, drugs, and gangs, and are stuffed into bulging jail cells. Meanwhile, the gap between the black haves and have-nots has widened even further.

NAACP leaders are sandwiched in the middle by the twisting political trends and shifting upward fortunes of the black middle-class, and downward of the black poor. A tilt by them toward a hard-edged activist agenda carries the fearful risk of alienating the corporate donors and the Democratic politicians that the NAACP leaders carefully cultivate. But an activist tilt also would draw even more fire from the growing legion of pro-GOP leaning blacks that think the NAACP has squandered any political juice it had with its relentless name calling attacks on Bush.

Its unfair to expect the NAACP to be a one size fits all organization that can bridge the gaping class and political divide among African-Americans and solve all their problems. But it is still the biggest, oldest and best-known civil rights organization. And many blacks look toward it to battle against racial and economic injustice. Mfume's rhapsodic words about the NAACP's proud past will be a tragic reminder of what the NAACP once was if it doesn't begin to live up to that expectation.

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