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.

Michael A. Fletcher, The Undefeated | 7/26/2017, 10:30 a.m.
Group looks for new leadership while continuing to play the inside game.
Former NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks. 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. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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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.