The NAACP’s mission was to ensure political, education, social and economic equality and eliminate race-based discrimination.
It was the vanguard of democracy and politicians of all stripes and backgrounds knew the worth of having the backing of the NAACP on issues they were fighting for.
The heroic battles that the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall waged against segregation in public schools as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are etched in the memory of this nation forever.
Despite all that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People achieved in helping to dismantle Jim Crow laws, and advocate for voting rights, the relevance of the Baltimore-based organization in dealing with multifaceted challenges of today remains a thorny issue.
But the sudden removal of Cornell William Brooks as president and CEO of the national organization two weeks ago on the grounds that it wants to re-energize itself to connect with young people and chart a new course has thrust questions about the group’s relevance into the national spotlight.
The unexpected dismissal is forcing a conversation about whether the future of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group is in limbo.
It is also shaping up to be a divide between the old guard of the civil rights movement, and young activists who have proven that with a series of tweets they can force a national dialogue within hours, as opposed to the bureaucracy in the NAACP where things have to be deliberated before an action is taken.
One of the most repeated questions is whether the NAACP’s once commanding presence has been blotted out by the emergence of groups like the Black Lives Matter movement.
Activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and young people from other less-structured organizations using the power of social media almost single-handedly made the issue of fatal encounters between police and black men a national conversation.
They made the shooting of unarmed black men — whether it was Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown — a major issue forcing the U.S. Justice Department to come down hard on police departments with recommendations for policing communities of color.
Derrick Johnson, the vice chairman of the NAACP’s 64-member board, admitted in a New York Times interview recently that the group may be running out of gas.
“We are in a transitional moment. This is the opportune time to begin to look at all our functions as an association and see, are we the right fit for this reality?” Johnson said.
Symone D. Sanders, the fiery former spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, told the Times in the same interview that the NAACP has lost grounds in this dispensation.
“I don’t think the NAACP is ready for this moment because they have been too risk-averse to engage. If folks aren’t ready to shut it down, to challenge Congress, to do more than just march, to do some real direct action, then they will not survive in this moment,” Sanders said.
At the group’s convention in Cincinnati last July, Roslyn Brock, the chairwoman of the board, seemed to acknowledge the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The NAACP movement and the Black Lives Matter movement must be strategic and have staying power,” Brock said.
When asked if the changes at the top of the NAACP will affect the operation of the Detroit chapter, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, the local president, said: “No. Not at all.”
Some Detroit activists agree with the sea change.
“Groups like Black Lives Matter are forcing the NAACP to reassess their style of advocacy, this new generation recognizes that old methods may have just run their course and effectiveness,” said Morgan Foreman, a 25-year-old Detroit activist.
Nguvu Tsare, another community activist, said he and others “are looking to the broader activist and civil rights community to move past respectability politics and aggressively pursue justice for disadvantaged and oppressed groups of people — even if that means forging new political relationships and ending others.
“The Donald Trump presidency has made it easier for activists and organizers to resonate with the broader community who may otherwise be hesitant to get involved in activist politics.”
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.