BALTIMORE — The NAACP calls itself the “oldest and boldest” civil rights organization in the country. The first part of that description is not in dispute. But in an era when activists quickly organize and mobilize mass demonstrations online, the NAACP finds itself struggling to remain on the cutting edge of the social justice movement.
As thousands of NAACP supporters gather here for the 108-year-old organization’s annual convention, the group is grappling with an urgent internal question: How can it better respond to the new realities confronting African-Americans without abandoning the principles that made it one of the nation’s leading forces for social change?
“The NAACP has to remember its history but also plan for the future,” said Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, an NAACP life member who used to consult for the organization. “It is not just about social justice, but it is also about economic justice and being prepared to take advantage of opportunity.”
The NAACP also faces urgent external challenges. The most pressing are coming from President Donald Trump’s administration, which is pushing policy changes on health care, criminal justice reform, educational funding and voting rights that are adamantly opposed by the organization.
All of that is complicated by the demands of a younger generation that is impatient with the NAACP’s style of advocacy. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, for example, have led raucous demonstrations to force the issue of police brutality onto the national agenda. That kind of action can make the NAACP’s approach, working within the system to hammer out legal and legislative change, seem ponderous or even irrelevant.
Earlier this month, the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s (AME) Council of Bishops released a scathing open letter demanding that the NAACP reinvent itself. “We call upon the National Board of the NAACP to restructure the organization, define its mission and set forth its vision, lest it remain on its current path toward irrelevancy and ultimate demise … longevity alone is not proof of relevance,” the letter said.
NAACP leaders say they recognize the organization’s predicament and are working to address it. Cornell Brooks, an AME minister and Yale Law School graduate who served as the group’s president and CEO for three years, was forced out in May after the board decided not to renew his contract. Derrick Johnson, the board’s vice chairman and an adjunct professor at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, is serving as interim president and CEO until a permanent replacement is named. Officials said they expect a new leader to be in place by the end of the year.
The organization said it will embark on a national listening tour before hiring a permanent president. NAACP officials said the tour will visit seven cities to hear from activists around the country about its future direction.
The tour should “expand our reach, touch our people, engage more diverse audiences and reinforce our focus on civil rights in this age of great political and social uncertainty,” Johnson said.
NAACP board Chairman Leon Russell said that while the NAACP is determined to keep pace with the times, it does not want to lose its identity of successfully working within the system. He noted that the organization faced similar questions of relevance during the heyday of the civil rights movement, when groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led street-level protests and sit-ins, while the NAACP supported their action by working for legislative and legal change. The same is true now with Black Lives Matter and other organizations, officials said.
“Groups like Black Lives Matter and others are important, and we appreciate and support what they do,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, which lobbies Congress and other federal entities. “They shine a bright light on problems, which is a very important first step. Our role is to get the courts, the legislature and government agencies to address those problems.”
This year’s agenda for the convention reflects the organization’s insider priorities. On Monday, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to speak about how the Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement has eroded since Trump took office. More than a dozen members of Congress, including Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, will also address the convention. Trump was invited to speak, too, but turned down the offer.
Since its founding in 1909, the NAACP has been at the forefront in combating lynching, dismantling segregation and helping to gain voting rights for African-Americans. NAACP martyrs such as Medgar Evers and husband and wife Harry T. and Harriette Moore have been murdered as a result of their NAACP activism. But after piling up a string of landmark civil rights victories, the NAACP now finds its targets more elusive.
The organization claims more than 500,000 members and in 2015 reported a budget of more than $29 million. The group has 2,200 local chapters that deal with issues before local governments. Many of those issues never bubble up to national attention. That structure gives the group an important grass-roots presence. But it also gives it an unwieldy bureaucracy, and national leaders struggle to improve communication between often independent local branches and the national headquarters in Baltimore.
Akosua Ali, 34, president of the organization’s branch in Washington, D.C., said the fact that the NAACP has an organizational infrastructure sets it apart from many other social justice groups.
“I know we have the capacity to get things done, and that is important,” she said. “We have the foundation for training and learning and a history that is unrivaled. There is really no other organization that offers that training and structure.”