The belief that President Obama’s election heralded immediate change was so strong that shortly after his win, the blog Debate Link featured a Nov. 7, 2008, column entitled. “Do We Still Need Civil Rights After Obama?”
It is a penetrating question.
Rozalind Winstead, a San Diego-based compliance consultant who believes that civil rights organizations are definitely relevant today but need retooling, and possibly a return to the street agitation and marches that helped them desegregate the South in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, says:
“As a compliance consultant, I see inequities and disparities in employment practices, construction jobs, and public contracts,” she said. “Black people still do not benefit from the doors that were pushed open by civil rights organizations. If anyone thinks the civil rights era is over and those organizations are no longer needed, she is not paying attention to what is happening across the country.”
In spite of the election of Barack Obama, there are the very obvious economic indicators that racism might be (is) alive and well. The nation has spent the last few years slogging through an economic doldrums that has left millions unemployed, and as usual African Americans were the hardest hit.
In April, the nation’s unemployment rate was 9 percent, or 13.7 million Americans out of work. In stark contrast, the rate for Blacks was 16.1 percent and 11.8 for Hispanics. The pattern displayed by these stats (African American joblessness at almost double the country’s rate) has remained consistent for years.
And there is no way that these millions of African Americans could all be lazy, shiftless and uninterested in working. Something else must be afoot, and conversations with those who study such issues would most likely point to the underlying racism that results in qualified Black job candidates being ignored in favor of sometimes less skilled Whites.
Maybe it’s racism. That insidious something that civil rights organizations have been fighting in America for decades. So perhaps groups like the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Rainbow Push are needed—again.
They are needed, Winstead added, because of all the assaults on Blacks and the achievements of civil rights groups.
But some wonder if they really are still relevant.
To a degree civil rights groups have stepped up to the plate, most notably in pointing out how national and local policies impact African Americans.
For example in July 2010, a group of prominent civil rights leaders joined forces to push for a federal education agenda that gives all students an “Opportunity to Learn.” Among their demands were to revamp the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In the framework developed they also wanted to support universal access to early education for students in all states, including recruiting and retaining highly effective educators.
There is also a need, the leaders said, to address long-standing resource inequities that exist nationwide. Additionally, they believe the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top education funding strategy is inherently problematic for high-need students and school districts.
“Because only a few states will receive competitive grants, most children in most states, particularly the rural South, will experience a real decrease in federal support, when inflation and state and local budget cuts are taken into consideration,” the civil rights leaders pointed out.
The Urban League each year produces a key report that highlights challenges people of African descent continue to face. Called the “State of Black America,” it is a look at a laundry list of indicators—economic, educational, housing, employment, quality of life, etc.—and how Blacks fare on each.
When it comes to relevance, the civil rights organizations themselves stress that they are still needed, but understand why people question their existence.
“There are struggles, battles and victories to be won in the 21st century,” said newly elected SCLC president the Rev. Dr. Howard Creecy Jr. in the organization’s Atlanta headquarters. “We are near the promise land, see the promise land, sense the promise land but we are not in the promise land . . . SCLC must move beyond the old struggle of empowerment and equality to include equity.”
Creecy, whose family has long been part of the fabric of the Civil Rights Movement (his father was a college roommate to Ralph Abernathy) describes equity as “more than riding on the bus; more than driving the bus; we are ready to own the bus franchise.”
The idea is to give Blacks a chance to participate in the economic life of America, said Creecy, who acknowledged that many people think the Civil Rights Movement has transcended the street and gone into the suites.
“That ivory tower mentality, skyscraper approach ignores the fact that there is more homelessness and hunger in America today than 40 years ago. There is more unemployment and underemployment in the Black community than 40 years ago; that in the contiguous Southeastern states of the U.S.A., more African American males are in a relationship with the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1860. It’s just incredible.”
Creecy places the blame for SCLC’s current low level of recognition within the larger community on the fact the organization “became sleepy for a few years.”
Khalid Abdullah Tariq Al-Mansour, J.D., author of “Betrayal By Any Other Name: 300 Years of Black and Hispanic Leadership” poses a more stinging indictment of civil rights organizations and/or Black leaders.
He believed groups like the NAACP and the Urban League appointed themselves as leaders, and while they espoused concern for the Black masses, really did not believe they were capable of being redeemed or civilized. Instead, Al-Monsour said they advocate(d) for social programs that do just enough to keep 85 percent of African Americans poor while the upper echelon and middle class benefit from jobs affiliated with managing these programs.
Al-Mansour also writes that while civil rights organizers wanted to be seen as representing the masses, in general they did not necessarily want to be among them.
Like SCLC, which was patterned on Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent protest tactics, the NAACP earned some of its civil rights stripes marching in the streets, but today that is not necessarily a big part of how the organization operates.
“The NAACP, at 102, still stands as the premier civil rights organization seeking to ensure equality and justice for all people. We are out there leading advocacy efforts in all areas including health, education, and economic prosperity,” says Roslyn M. Brock, chair of the NAACP national board of directors. “While you may not see us marching in the streets as often as we used to, we are in the White House, congressional offices, and state capitols advocating on behalf of all citizens.”
According to Stefanie Brown, the NAACP national field director/director of the youth and college division, despite the existence of a national office, people have to remember that the association is really comprised of local chapters staffed by volunteers who see a pressing need in the community. “When you think about your everyday life and schedule, and think about some people out there, who in addition to their everyday lives take time to volunteer on behalf of the NAACP, you can understand why sometimes you call (a local chapter office) and people don’t get right back you.”
According to Brock, the current focus of the NAACP is “on ending the cycle of poverty affecting so many Americans and fostering increased prosperity. In order to do that we must ensure that our leaders are smarter in their policy creation—passing laws that go beyond the immediate need for job creation, and also help erase racial and ethnic disparities in economic security and opportunity. We advocate for our country to make smart investments in education and innovation that will allow us to compete in the global marketplace. We know we cannot simultaneously achieve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while being too sick to go to work, not being able to see a doctor and deciding whether or not to pay a mortgage, rent, student loan or a payday lender. It is the NAACP that has and continues to remind this country of its obligation to its people to affirm America’s promise,” Brock said.
The NAACP’s Brown added that what she finds particularly exciting about the organization today is the youth engagement.
“Youth membership is the fastest growing segment in the volunteer base. We are seeing young people who want to get involved, because they realize that all we fought for in the Civil Rights Movement that we haven’t achieved those victories.”
By youth Brown means those under age 25, and she says that essentially they are using the same tactics as have been traditionally used by the organization—mass mobilization.
“Many of the youth are engaged in civic engagement work,” Brown explained. “They are doing voter registration; voter turnout; working to educate their peers; they put on forums and go to city council meetings.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between contemporary youth and the volunteers of the past is that they use social networking as a primary organizing tool.
Additionally, Brown said the association is working to train a new generation of leaders, and one of the ways this happens is through the 5-year-old Leadership 500 summit the organization holds annually. This year’s event takes place at the end of the month in Hollywood, Fla., and is already sold out.
SCLC is also being buoyed the presence of youth and is going back to its traditional support base, said Creecy.
“Some days I come to work and look around the office and think I’m the only one who shaves,” joked the SCLC president, pointing out that his office is staffed by young, bright Ivy League and other university grads, as well as those young people who have graduated from “the university of adversity.”
“This is the new team that makes up the core and backbone of SCLC today. They are from Morehouse, your house and no house. They are from Ivy League schools, are trained theologians and trained attorneys. Some also have firsthand experience of what it means to be hungry and homeless.”
As part of its effort to retool, Creecy said is stressing three points—credibility, visibility and viability. The organization is also reaching back and out to its traditional base: churches, sororities, fraternities as well as corporations and civic partners across the nation.
“Historically all the social justice groups had slightly different niches. The NAACP was always about education and litigation . . . SCLC was always a grassroots civic organization. But what happened is we disconnected from our base . . . churches, labor and students. We are intentionally going back to our base. That is why [we] have the 100,000 church outreach program. That’s why we’re meeting with labor. Dr. King died fighting for workers rights.
“That’s why we invited 100 college students (from leadership) at HBCUs to our national conference . . . we want to re-establish our grassroots base. That is our No. 1 priority.”
Doing all this takes financial resources, something these civil rights groups are perpetually in search of. Sometimes they are criticized for the way they obtain the resources—from corporate supporters whom they later may have to take to task for actions that negatively impact their constituents.
But every single representative echoed in some way the NAACP’s Brock: “The NAACP has never been afraid to address corporations and organizations that have discriminatory practices. In many instances, it is our existing relationships with these institutions that allow us to sit at the table and assist them in fixing those policies.”
OW Contributor Art Cribbs provided interviews and research for this story.