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Mere Image

It's fashionable to dis the NAACP, but these civil rights champs are out to prove they still have their letters in order



"The N-double-don't-do-nothing-C-P?"


That's Darrick Payton's response to a question about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the 2003 documentary film, The New Black Plague: Homicides in Pittsburgh. "They don't do anything," he continues. "They're nothing. They're defunct. I mean ... they still call themselves colored people."


Payton, 34, works for Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families. Today he still calls the NAACP "an old tiger with no teeth" that "isn't saying anything" about voter disenfranchisement and racial disparities in incarceration rates in this country.


Not anything?


"They're saying some things, but not enough," says Payton -- certainly not enough to connect with the public. He believes they should be going door-to-door and devising new forms of civil disobedience.


Mention the NAACP's name to a black person nowadays and it's common to hear criticism, constructive or not. It's been a long time since The NAACP's Legal Defense Fund made Brown v. Board of Education possible. When and how it became so sexy to write off the organization isn't clear.


"We've never gotten beyond slavery and its negative effects," says Tim Stevens, president of the local NAACP branch since 1994. "Our first response is to see how we can vilify each other or how we can take the strengths we do have and weaken them. I find it sickening and unhealthy for us as a race."


Perhaps criticism of the NAACP began when former national President Benjamin Chavis (now Benjamin Muhammad with the Nation of Islam) was ousted for financial impropriety, leaving the long-time civil rights champions in the red until current President Kwesi Mfume, former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, took over in 1996. This month the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP celebrates its 50th anniversary; Mfume is the keynote speaker at its Human Rights dinner.


Nationally, it would appear the NAACP is losing power. President George W. Bush has refused to meet with it, unlike past presidents. Even black Secretary of State Colin Powell has cancelled on the group. The Democratic presidential candidates snubbed it last year -- twice. Of the three who did respond to requests to attend NAACP forums, two were black candidates Al Sharpton and Carol Mosley Braun.


More recently, the NAACP's Image Awards nomination of R. Kelly -- the beleaguered R&B artist who's been charged with sexual deviance -- rankled more than a few bloggers, editorialists and barbershop pundits. 


The local NAACP also seems to be having an image problem.


Last summer, when popular Hill District artist Jorge Myers wasn't selected by the Sprout Fund to paint a mural on the NAACP's headquarters, the NAACP was targeted for complying with the moves of a predominantly white, outsider group -- even though the NAACP doesn't own the building. The local chapter was also vilified for supporting the Republican Clerk of Courts candidate over incumbent George Matta, even though Matta had settled five discrimination lawsuits by former employees during which he admitted using the word "nigger."


The NAACP's actions enflamed East End ward leader Louis "Hop" Kendrick, who used his Pittsburgh Courier column to berate the organization, saying the NAACP was being "prostituted" by the Republicans. In August he wrote,"Stop vilifying the NAACP and become active." By October he had announced he was canceling his membership, charging that "the oldest and greatest civil rights organization in this nation has sunk to an all-time low."


There was a time when the NAACP would have taken all these shots in stride. After all, the 95-year-old organization was, for at least the first half of the century, the premier advocate of blacks' rights, and won many victories against Jim Crow laws in the South, housing discrimination, police brutality and many other injustices. Chairman of the Board Julian Bond, eager to prove the NAACP is still alive and relevant, points out that recent polls give the group an 85 percent favorability rating among blacks.


In response to Kendrick's "NAACP ... What Have You Done Lately?" column, local NAACP president Stevens and economic development chair Lemuel "Rip" Nixon fired off a list of accomplishments to the Courier. Their group, they said, had spoken with Governor Ed Rendell about making real advances concerning the lack of diversity among county and state judges and on the city's financial oversight board and the police force. The group also helped create the Police Procedures for Safe Apprehensions of Police Suspects summit between community leaders, citizens, law enforcement workers (including Fraternal Order of Police officials) and elected officials in hopes of curbing police brutality and fatalities. Stevens and NAACP reps meet with District Attorney Stephen Zappala regularly to address high-profile cases of fatal police encounters with suspects. The NAACP, working with mostly volunteer leadership, is still drawing attention to the "positional asphyxiation" that claimed Jonny Gammage's life in 1996 during a struggle with Brentwood police, as well as more recent cases, while most of the local furor over Gammage's death receded years ago.


The local NAACP also helps organize the grassroots voter-registration efforts of the Black Political Empowerment Project, and campaigns against the scheduled closing of Western Penitentiary, which Stevens says would place a burden on visiting families and also break up the diverse volunteer community that regularly aids prisoners there.


The national NAACP has been active as well, yearly challenging the television and motion picture industry on its exclusion of minorities from both sides of the camera. It campaigned successfully against California's Proposition 54 referendum, which would have dismantled all racial classifications used by the government in determining health, education, civil rights and law enforcement policies. The group's Legal Defense Fund, which many think has been closed for years, has been instrumental in lobbying against Bush's right-wing judge nominees, while its lawsuits against the state of Florida following Bush's election helped make voting reform a priority.


Some criticisms do hold weight. National organizations such as the Hip Hop Summit Action Network (headed by Benjamin Muhammad) and the Hip Hop Political Convention have been aggressive in turning young music listeners into agents for social change while registering them to vote by the thousands -- something even Stevens confesses has been difficult for the NAACP. But he points to the NAACP's youngest local executive board member, Nyota Robinson, as the group's future.


Robinson, 25, was in the NAACP'S "Nay" choir until she became actively engaged in its work. Now she's made it her personal responsibility to recruit as many young people as possible.


"The NAACP is out of touch with what young people are going through and are not properly expressing their viewpoints to the younger community, but the younger community isn't expressing our viewpoints their way either," says Robinson. "We're not making proper connections to let our voice be heard."


Bridging the gap between the young cats and the "old tiger" is a huge challenge, says Robinson. There's also the continued use of "colored people." The NAACP is not inclined to change, even though similarly aged United Negro College Fund recently dropped the "Negro." Besides, "If we were to change our name every time black people changed what we called ourselves then we would have been about four different organizations by now," says Stevens.


Robinson believes the "Advancement" in the name should be emphasized: "It reminds us of what we used to be, but it also tells us where we're tying to go."


Beyond the name, Stevens says, he'd rather be recognized for the civil rights agenda the group pushes.  


"Do we miss some things? Absolutely," he says. "In spite of our weaknesses, I often ask people to name one organization in Pittsburgh that has addressed more issues relevant to black people. Normally, I don't get an answer. One guy answered, 'Tim, I don't know if there's a number two.'"

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