On 100th Anniversary, NAACP Looks to Future of Civil Rights

July 17, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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President Obama spoke Thursday at the 100th anniversary of the NAACP. Gwen Ifill traveled to New York to speak with the leader and two activists from the organization about its changing role.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the NAACP turns 100. Last night, President Obama spoke at a convention celebrating the birthday of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S., President: I understand there may be a temptation among some to think that discrimination is no longer a problem in 2009. And I believe that, overall, there probably has never been less discrimination in America than there is today. I think we can say that.

But make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America…


… by African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and a different gender; by Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country; by Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion simply because they kneel down to pray to their God; by our gay brothers and sisters still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.

JIM LEHRER: Yesterday, Gwen Ifill talked with the new, young leader of the NAACP and two activists about the past, present and future of the civil rights group.

GWEN IFILL: We are joined by Benjamin Jealous, the president and CEO of the NAACP; Hazel Dukes, the New York NAACP Conference president; and Professor Eddie Glaude of Princeton, who’s the director of the Center for African-American Studies there.

Thank you all for joining us.

EDDIE GLAUDE, Princeton University: Thank you.

HAZEL DUKES, President, NAACP New York Conference: Thank you.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS, president, NAACP: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Jealous, the NAACP was founded at a time 100 years ago when people were saying that Negroes would not be equal to whites for 50 to 100 more years. So how far have we come now?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: In some ways, it turns out that that was a very optimistic statement, right? I mean, on the one hand, sort of on the high notes, we’ve hit them.

You know, we have the first black president of the U.S., and yet it’s still harder for a black man with no criminal record to find a job than a white man who has one. Black children in the school district in Baltimore, 75 percent drop out before they graduate.

We have very serious problems, very big disparities. We are free, but that was just the beginning. You know, the next step is to actually catch up and to ensure that the dream in this country is real for all families. And we just aren’t there yet.

Education central to NAACP mission

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Dukes, you have been an NAACP activist for...

HAZEL DUKES: Three decades.

GWEN IFILL: Three decades.


GWEN IFILL: How have you seen the mission change?

HAZEL DUKES: We've worked on school matters, education. We're not there yet. In the city, the mayor has taken control of the school districts, and we don't have school boards anymore. So that has helped, in some way. But the real issue here is, we do not have quality education.

GWEN IFILL: There are so many articles about the relevance of the NAACP and whether it still has a role. What's your take on that?

EDDIE GLAUDE: When we think about the beginnings of the NAACP, we think about 1909, we think about the Springfield riot, where a white woman accused a black man of rape...

GWEN IFILL: Springfield, Illinois.

EDDIE GLAUDE: Springfield, Illinois, the backdrop of President Obama's announcement of his candidacy. That's the setting for the formation of the NAACP. Of course, the context changed.

And so we are in a different moment. But we still have to understand the relationship between race over determining life chances of fellow Americans.

In the United States, we've had a problem. And the problem is that we've thought about race and class as mutually exclusive, when in fact class is the way -- I mean, race is the way that class is experienced in the United States. How else are we to understand Katrina?

So, in part, what we have to do is we have to figure out a way to talk about the complex interrelation between class, poverty and race.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about affirmative action...

EDDIE GLAUDE: OK, absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: ... if we're going to talk about it that way, because there are a lot of people who say there are poor white people who could benefit from some sort of extra preference being given or some advantage being given, that they are being deprived because of a race-based policy.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Look at a college campus. You have race-based affirmative action. You have gender-based affirmative action. And you have class-based affirmative action. Because, you know, you do have doorways that are open for people who are first-time college, for people who come from poor areas of the country, poor rural areas that are primarily white.

You know, I think it is a very fair question in this society right now to ask, well, what about whites who are trapped in a multigenerational poverty?

GWEN IFILL: Sounds like you're arguing against race-conscious solutions.

Becoming a good citizen

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: No. What I'm saying is that you've got to have both. We need to go back to King's letter from a Birmingham jail when he said straight up, poor black prisoners and poor white prison guards have more in common than they don't and really ask, what's fundamental as far as self-interest?

You know, if you're fighting for good jobs, for good schools, for a justice system that works, then part of the critique has to include space for all people who are struggling with those institutions, and poor whites are part of that.

GWEN IFILL: Let me bring Ms. Dukes in. Where does personal responsibility fall in all of this?

HAZEL DUKES: I think we have to bring that in, in the conversation. I believe that home, I believe that school, and I believe that we as an organization have to begin to talk about discipline.

And it was spoke about. We have resolutions here at our convention, and resolutions really point to that. We have a lot of bullying in school where it's not cool to be an A student. And so we have to tell our kids, yes, it is cool to be an A student.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that students who are being bullied care about NAACP resolutions?

HAZEL DUKES: Yes. We have young people, young as 6 years old, who are here being trained in advocacy of how you become a good citizen.

EDDIE GLAUDE: I'm going to say this, Ms. Dukes, is that there is -- I think there's a false opposition between personal responsibility and questions around race.


EDDIE GLAUDE: And that is to say, when you have a family struggling to make ends meet, when work disappears in particular communities, that impacts character formation.

When we talk about folks not having access to good health care, not having access to quality doctors, how they feel, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, we can -- that impacts the very ways in which they interact with their kids.

And so part of what I'm saying is that folk want to talk about responsibility as if there are not structures that provide the context for the exercise of responsibility, and they're intimately and intricately connected.

And so part of what we're talking about when we talk about race and class, oftentimes people want to find that big monster, the Bull Connor. They want to find that person who's screaming racial epithets at some folk. They want to see explicit discrimination.

But they don't want to look at the legacy of racist policies that have defined and determined the life chances of generations of folk. And given that legacy and how that legacy seeps through the very bloodstream of American democracy, we can't rush to utopia and rush past all of the mess that is still around.

GWEN IFILL: That's an interesting term about rushing to utopia. Do you think that's where America is now, where they say, "We have a black president; we're at utopia"?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: I think that's where part of this country is. I think, you know, most of this country, January 20th, they said, "Wow, this is a transformative moment." People were crying. They felt hopeful, black, white, brown, red, yellow.

And then January 21st came. Dad still didn't have a job. Mom still had to work too many jobs. The family dream was being foreclosed on. Too many folks in the neighborhood are dying of AIDS. Too many are off to prison.

Future of the NAACP

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you a final question about the NAACP's strategy for the future? And I'll start with you, Ms. Dukes. Traditionally, the NAACP has been an avenue of dissent, protest. Is there a shift now afoot for the approach that the NAACP brings to effecting change toward self-empowerment and away from dissent?

HAZEL DUKES: We really haven't just been organizing big marches. We've been in the courts. Every legal battle that has made America better, it was won by NAACP.

So it wasn't just marching all of the time. It was sitting, thinking, bringing action. We've put together the best organizing for voter registration in this country. NAACP has done that.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Glaude?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: There's a wonderful phrase, that if you fixate on the past, you can turn to stone like Gorgon, so you have to turn towards the future.

The NAACP has to re-imagine itself. It has to re-imagine itself in light of the particular issues that are confronting not only black folk, but the nation. How will it speak to the peculiar circumstances of today?

It has a pedagogical function. It has to teach the nation how to talk about race in the age of Obama. It has a policy function. It has to highlight where race matters in policy discussion.

And lastly is its moral function. It has to say that racial justice is not just simply about black folk. Racial justice is about justice. It's about democracy. And if we can keep those three in mind, we can look forward to the next 100 years.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Jealous?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Our job is to move it from being reactive to being proactive. You know, our job is to not just make sure that they're prepared to deal with the cops when there's been a problem with racial profiling in that community or with a school system when there's a young person whose dreams look like they're being crushed because of a zero-tolerance policy that is misconceived and misapplied. Our job is to ensure that they know how to change those policies.

GWEN IFILL: Is part of that holding a black president's feet to the fire?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Certainly. Certainly. I mean, I think that he gets it, as a former community organizer, that the best thing that we can do for him is to come to bear with all the pressure we can bring to live up to the promises that he made. And if we want to see civil rights advance, if we want to see human rights advance, then we have to push him just as hard as we can.

GWEN IFILL: Benjamin Jealous, Hazel Dukes, and Eddie Glaude, thank you all very much.


HAZEL DUKES: Thank you.

EDDIE GLAUDE: Thank you.