NAACP searches for relevance in era defined by Black Lives Matter and Trump Group looks for new leadership while continuing to play the inside game

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.”

March on Washington Film Fest features 9th Wonder, Diahann Carroll and Eric Holder This year’s festival looks at civil rights across sports, entertainment, higher education and the legal system

The March on Washington Film Festival returns this month for its fifth year of celebrating films that explore themes of civil rights, activism and social justice.

Panels and events including actress Diahann Carroll, producer 9th Wonder and former Attorney General Eric Holder are among the highlights of the 21 events that run from July 13-22.

Holder will be on hand for a couple of events. He’s part of a panel discussing Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith before an invitation-only audience July 20 at the Supreme Court. And he and his wife, Sharon Malone, will be presenting writer Ta-Nehisi Coates with the Vivian Malone Courage Award on July 15. Vivian Malone, Sharon’s sister, was one of two students who integrated the University of Alabama in 1963 and became its first black graduate in 1965.

Carroll will be attending to support a documentary-in-progress co-directed by her daughter, Suzanne Kay. Festivalgoers will get a glimpse of the film from Kay and Margo Speciale about The Ed Sullivan Show and its importance in introducing America to black artists. Sullivan faced threats and boycotts for integrating his variety show, one of the most watched programs in America, but he persisted nevertheless. The full documentary is expected to be completed in 2018.

9th Wonder, the ear behind Jay-Z’s Black Album, Kendrick Lamar’s Damn., and Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, will be on hand to discuss The Hip-Hop Fellow (2014) with the Kennedy Center’s new director of hip-hop programming, Simone Eccleston, on July 21. The Hip-Hop Fellow follows 9th Wonder (also known as Patrick Douthit) as a fellow at Harvard’s Hip-Hop Research Institute, where he also taught for the 2012-13 school year. Among the records that 9th Wonder selected to be archived in Harvard’s Loeb Music Library: A Tribe Called Quest‘s The Low End Theory, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Nas’ Illmatic and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

This year’s festival also marks the introduction of the Freedom’s Children Student Journalists Competition. Earlier this year, students from around the country submitted work for the chance to cover the festival for various journalism outlets. The Undefeated is participating and will be running work from the winners.

Also worth a gander:

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice

Deborah Riley Draper’s 2016 documentary, narrated by Blair Underwood, looks beyond Jesse Owens to the 17 other black American athletes who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, some of whom also won medals at the Games.

Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968

When many people think of violent clashes between college students and the police, the horrors of Kent State spring to mind. But Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968, the 2008 film from directors Bestor Cram and Judy Richardson, reveals the history and context behind a standoff at South Carolina State University in 1968, when South Carolina Highway Patrol officers killed three protesters and injured 27 others who were demonstrating for the desegregation of an Orangeburg bowling alley.

Winnie

Director Pascale Lamche’s 2017 documentary about the freedom fighter and former wife of Nelson Mandela premiered this year at Sundance. Winnie Mandela sat for four interviews in two years with Lamche, and the result is a look at her fight against apartheid in South Africa and the toll it took on her and her marriage. The festival will host a discussion at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on July 19 with poet Elizabeth Alexander and Gay McDougall of the U.N. Committee for Ending Racial Discrimination.

Festival attendees can check out the full event lineup and purchase passes and tickets at http://marchonwashingtonfilmfestival.org.

This article has been changed to correct the number of events and the relationship of Vivian and Sharon Malone.

For the sake of black fatherhood, stop the war on drugs I get to celebrate Father’s Day with my dad after 27 years thanks to President Obama

“Your father WAS a good man, Nique. He always looked out for folks.”

“Boy, Ralph could run. You run just like him. He WAS a legend.”

“You Ralph son? He HAD a brain on him. Smart. Sorry to see that happened to him.”

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, and playing sports made these common sayings that were spoken to me. My father, Ralph Warren, was a present memory in my life but a very distant one to friends and admirers. Hearing this, you might assume my father was deceased — maybe an accident, a bullet or maybe bad luck happening to a man many had fond memories of. That wasn’t the case at all. My father was alive and well living in Indiana, then Kentucky, then Illinois in a jail cell, sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense. He wasn’t deceased, but his sentence would ensure that he would never see freedom. He would die in jail. DIE IN JAIL.

That had always hung over me with great pain, fear and anger. I would not be able to see my father grow old nor pass away in the comforts of his home because he would be in a federal prison cell. That is why on Jan. 17, 2017 — when President Barack Obama, mere days before his term was up, commuted my father’s sentence for drug trafficking and firearm charges after 27 years — I cried for hours knowing that I would know my father as a free man.


On Feb. 8, my father arrived back at the Greyhound bus station in Toledo, Ohio, where dozens of family members, including my mom and sibling, and a host of friends welcomed him back. I introduced him for the very first time to my daughter, Lois Marie. Since his release, he has edited and re-released his novel Target, begun working at a local auto supplier plant and, most importantly, spoken to recovering drug abusers and young men who have come into contact with the prison system. Together, my father and I are advocating for reduced sentencing and more funding for re-entry programs to local and federal legislators. Our lives have been affected by this “War on Drugs,” and we are on a mission to ensure it won’t reintensify.

Between 1970 and 2005, America’s prison and jail population ballooned from 300,000 to more than 2 million. America’s “War on Drugs” began under former President Richard Nixon in 1971 as a response to the increase in recreational drug use and abuse in the 1960s. Initial appropriations were geared to clinical and drug abuse prevention efforts, increased funding for prisons, directives for harsher sentences and aggressive law enforcement geared at drug cartels. It escalated under President Reagan, with the creation of mandatory minimum prison sentences in 1986 after an influx of crack cocaine in American cities targeted black and brown communities.

The American presidency from 1970 to 2005 focused on “Law and Order” to combat drug trafficking and violence, resulting in 1 in 9 black children currently having an incarcerated parent. Ninety-two percent of parents in prison are fathers, and an overwhelming proportion of these fathers are black.

Children of incarcerated parents are faced with trauma, higher chance of being in poverty, and increased rates of incarceration that create a cycle of destruction in the black community. Mass incarceration of black fathers limits the financial stability of families. Coupled with other racially prejudiced systems, mass incarceration plagues the stability of the black community.

Attorney General Eric Holder established the Smart on Crime initiative in 2014 to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing and push more funding to programs that decrease prison recidivism. Researchers from the Pew Charitable Trust agree that federal mandatory minimums don’t deter crime or reduce the number of people who return to jail. Directing prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimums for low-level and nonviolent offenses, the Obama administration’s commutation and pardon policies allowed thousands to be freed and reunited with families and society. Unfortunately, these policies came to an end with the presidential election of Donald Trump and appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

In May, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to seek the harshest indictments for drug offenses and reinstated mandated federal minimums for all charges, which includes the “three strikes” provision when disclosing to judges all facts pertaining to sentencing. This reversal of policy is not just a setback for best practices in federal prosecutions and has widespread opposition by both political parties, but it is also a setback for black fathers and their children.

Current policies for the Justice Department directed by Sessions empower prosecutors to use the full power of the federal government to enact harsh sentences for low-level and nonviolent crimes and keep the current prison population, the world’s largest, growing. We know that federal sentencing grossly prosecutes a high proportion of black males, leaving their children fatherless, without dual incomes and suffering from extreme trauma. There are no winners in this scenario, only losers. The appearance of being tough on crime from the DOJ will not reduce crime, but it will ensure millions of fatherless children who will be at risk of committing crimes themselves.

If 21st-century federal sentencing policies mirror the past 30 years of “Law and Order” mandates, we will continue to see our prison population rise and spend much-needed funding on housing prisoners instead of investing in communities, families and children. The annual cost of housing a prisoner outstrips the cost of tuition in states such as California, costing more than $75,000. Frederick Douglass in the 19th century said, “It’s easier to build strong children than broken men.” As prison and education costs rise, we as a nation have to make a choice of where our priorities lie. If we believe that families matter and children need fathers, mandatory minimums that target black men must be a policy of the past. We need to reinstate the commutation policy of the last administration so that imprisoned citizens are reinstated back to their communities.

This is the first Father’s Day I will spend with my dad in 27 years. I won’t take it for granted, because I know that many children won’t be able to celebrate it with their fathers.

They were, like me, waiting and waiting for that dream of seeing their fathers on this side of freedom. I am also vigilant for black fathers who will be targeted by the Trump administration’s arcane policies that invoke echoes of the past and have destroyed communities and families of color in the name of “Law and Order.”

On this Father’s Day, celebrate black fatherhood and work to protect it at all costs. I plan to strap my daughter into her stroller, put on my best running shoes and run just like my father, next to my father.