In May, Melissa Harris-Perry wrote a New York Times op-ed that suggested that it was (or should be) a wrap for the 108-year-old NAACP. "Today, the NAACP carries the weight of history and burden of bureaucracy. But it does not seem willing to shed blood, literally, or in terms of the uncomfortable work that characterizes effective activism," she wrote in the piece entitled "How to Save the NAACP From Irrelevance."
Even though Harris-Perry didn't make an appearance at the organization's seven-day conference (the theme: Steadfast and Immovable), held last week at the Baltimore Convention Center, her words at times seemed to hang in the air. Often during the gathering leaders seemed eager to defend the NAACP's legacy and their ability to chart the way forward.
"Many have talked about whether or not we're relevant," said Interim President and CEO Derrick Johnson during the group's general meeting, held on the third day of the conference. "Let me remind you: Whether you come from Honolulu, Hawaii or Fort Pierce, Fla., whether you hail from Connecticut or Ohio, we are the NAACP. We are all that we have. Our relevance is as true as our actions in local communities across this landscape."
The day before, at an early morning press conference, Johnson had answered a question from a reporter who asked what the group has to do in the face of groups like Black Lives Matter.
"The beautiful thing about young people being activists is the fact that young people are being activists," he said.
"We support the movement for black lives. We support the Justice League," Johnson said. "Many of the young people who are in the ranks of those organizations, many of them come out of the ranks of the NAACP. The NAACP understands that in civil rights advocacy there's room for everyone. And because there is room for everyone, it's an opportunity to make democracy work for all.”
The group has been without a president since May, when their national board announced that they were dismissing Cornell William Brooks after three years on the job. Johnson was appointed to the interim position during the conference. Leon Russell, the Chairman of the NAACP's Board of Directors, said the group hoped to have a full-term head named by the end of the year.
"We're going to look at how we do that process, we're going to talk amongst the leadership of the association, the executive committee and the national board of directors," he said. "We're going to sit down and really be intentional about how we do this, where we look, and how we look so we’re going to take the time necessary to do this."
If that wasn't enough of an indication that the group was in soul-searching mode there is also this: NAACP leadership also used the occasion of the conference to announce that they would be going on a listening tour. Johnson said it was so that they could ask, and answer, some major questions: "How do we confront a social justice movement in 2016 and forward? How do we address the threats on government and the redesign on government that we currently see? How do we empower our members and our units on the ground across this landscape? So that we can provide the support not only for the African American communities but for citizens."
"It has often been said that NAACP is the conscious of America," he said. "We have to listen to our members so that we can re-invigorate the conscious, our work, so that we can support all."
A quick glance around last week's gathering showed that the demographic of members (at least those with the time and money to attend a seven-day convention) skewed toward retirement age. The group's public meeting looked and felt like an old-time church gathering, with an organ highlighting speakers' most important points and older ladies decked out in church hats and dresses. During the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," there was no hesitation among attendees to stand. Playing the song to a younger gathering of black people may have garnered a different reaction.
The civil rights movement is changing, and with it, more black people are shrugging off the burden of respectability that they were forced to carry for so long. After the group invited President Donald Trump to the event, just like they've invited many other U.S. presidents (Democrats and Republicans) before him, the question that many were asking was, "Why?" Things are not business as usual anymore, and there's really no need to try to make nice with an administration as nakedly racist as Trump's.
Just look at the push-back that Mayor Catherine Pugh, who said she's had a long history with the group, got when she supported a plan to impose a mandatory minimum on anyone caught with a gun without a permit in Baltimore City. Activists and organizers spoke out, saying that such laws just don't work, and often only serve to put more black people into an unjust criminal justice system.
"Let's have some real conversations around black-on-black crime in our communities," the mayor said at the conference. "Let's have a real conversation about too many guns in our neighborhoods and communities, illegal guns, killing our children, killing our brothers, killing our sons, killing our mothers, killing our babies. Let's have some real conversations because we need them to grow up and be part of the future of our nation."
Except that more and more, people are rejecting the term "black-on-black" crime for the demonizing lie that it is. People kill and hurt the people they are closest to, so if there is to be a discussion about black-on-black crime, there should be one on white-on-white crime, middle-class-on-middle-class crime, and so on. How will the group address these changes?
"Because it's not just about social justice, it's about economic justice," said Pugh, who rejected a bill that would raise the minimum wage in Baltimore City.
Despite all this, the NAACP is a group that still wields political power. Various sessions featured movers and shakers such as Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Kamala Harris. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. spoke at an annual luncheon held in honor of famed Baltimore civil rights attorney Clarence Mitchell.
Holder called for members to harness their collective power to fight voter intimidation and disenfranchisement efforts.
"Speak out. Don't be afraid. Don’t worry about being the subject of a tweet," he said. "Raise awareness about what is at stake. Call on the political party most responsible to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success."