Has the NAACP sold out?
By: Isaac Peterson, III
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
Originally posted 9/3/2003

Kweisi Mfume was given a tough job when he was brought on to direct the National NAACP: to rehabilitate the tattered image the NAACP suffered from his predecessor Ben Chavis’ tenure and get the organization back on track.

Mfume, a former U.S. Congressman, was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and later the caucus’ chair of the Task Force on Affirmative Action. Mfume assumed his position as NAACP president and CEO in 1996 with a budget shortfall inherited from Chavis. In a December 1995 Newshour interview, Mfume stated: “Well, the first order of business…is to deal with the financial situation. The NAACP has, as you know, a $3.2 million debt that has to be liquidated, done away with.

[There] has to be in place…the right sort of accounting procedures and apparatus with the help of Price Waterhouse and others to ensure that never again will fiscal solvency be a question with the organization, that every dollar that comes in will be accounted for and every dollar that goes out.

“Second to that, I think at some point in time we’ve got to continue to do even more outreach to young people, to emphasize personal responsibility and academic excellence and to ask them to be a part of the fold and a part of what we have to do not only to rebuild the organization but to rebuild communities. It’s a daunting task, make no mistake about it. Economic empowerment, trying to organize politically around this country in every congressional district, to get people to respond to their elected officials and to take their own destiny in their own hands, is a tremendous task. But I welcome it, I look forward to it, and I walk to it with a clear understanding of what it’s going to take.”

Under Mfume, the NAACP has pursued some worthy causes, such as the settlement it won in Florida after disclosures of the state’s active and deliberate role in disenfranchising people of color from voting in the 2000 presidential election. Another well-publicized legal victory came after the NAACP lent its support to a discrimination suit against Texaco for its hiring and promotion practices. Texaco paid a settlement of over $176 million to employees of color.

NAACP’s choice of battles questioned

Former NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall successfully represented the organization in its legal battles in the 1950s, often at the risk of his life. Marshall’s outstanding and courageous work on behalf of the helpless and the voiceless propelled him into the first Supreme Court seat held by an African American. Some seem to still see the NAACP as it was with Marshall.

But many, including author Earl Ofari Hutchinson, have criticized the NAACP for the nature of most of the battles it has pursued recently. Hutchinson excoriated the NAACP in a Mother Jones article entitled “NAACP Misses the Point with Rebel Flag” (April 12, 2000). The subtitle of the article was “The NAACP keeps its corporate donors happy by squawking over side-show issues like South Carolina’s Confederate flag — at the expense of meaningful activism on issues that really matter to African Americans.”

Hutchinson charged that while the NAACP was pursuing the Confederate flag issue, it “[made] no mention of the ugly fact that South Carolina blacks have close to the highest poverty, school-dropout, infant-mortality, and victim-of-violence rates in the nation. The NAACP has been mum on the dreary plight of hundreds of black South Carolina farmers whose farms have been foreclosed upon by bankers and government agencies in the past decade.”

The article went on to assert, “The Confederate flag fight in South Carolina is a textbook example of the NAACP’s strategy of elevating side-show issues to life-and-death struggles for African-Americans, in order to grab maximum media and public visibility. It also uses this strategy to shut up black critics who blast the NAACP as a do-little, rudderless group more interested in lining its coffers with corporate dollars than fighting hard racial battles.”

Hutchinson continued, “The strategy is simple: Pick the softest target possible, make a lot of fuss about it, and take minimal action on the piles of crisis issues that devastate poor and working-class black communities. NAACP leaders employed the strategy when they threatened boycotts against the TV industry, lawsuits against gun manufacturers, and squawked about the paucity of black Supreme Court clerks.”

Indeed, there is room to question the worthiness of several battles the NAACP has fought in recent years, such as criticizing the hotel industry for its lack of Blacks in managerial positions. It is not immediately clear to many how issues of this kind have any real bearing on the plight of African Americans in general.

Topics such as “Is the NAACP still relevant?” and “Has the NAACP changed its mission?” can be found on African American online discussion groups and publications.

Hutchinson’s article also claims, “A tilt toward an aggressive activist agenda carries the risk of alienating the corporate donors that the NAACP has carefully cultivated over the past few years. It depends on those donors to gain more jobs, promotions, and contracts for black professionals and businesspersons and to secure contributions for its fundraising campaigns, dinners, banquets, scholarship funds, and other programs.”

Along those lines, the July 3-9, 2002 online edition of African American News & Issues states, “The ever-escalating cost of litigation alone makes it impossible for the NAACP to rely solely on membership fees. Conversely, the benevolence of corporate America puts the organization in the same political Catch-22 as we find our politicians and leaders in.”

The article goes on to say, “Thus, the NAACP and all other civil rights advocates (whose primary mission is to implement and foster the progress of ‘Made in America’ Africans) are forced to compromise to empathize.” The article concludes, “Ergo, the color of money precludes advancement of colored people.”

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