The Two NAACPs and a Century of Struggle
There have always been at least two NAACPs. There has been a national leadership, more sensitive to corporate interests and devoted to what can be won in the court or passed through the legislature this year. And there have always been the NAACP's scores of branches across the country, more and less active. It's the branches, some of them, which are the heirs of NAACP founders W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells-Barnett, of Medgar Evers and a long line of standup activists, the real people of struggle whose names most of us will never know.
The Two NAACPs and a Century of Struggle
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
“Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall worked with the FBI to purge the NAACP of leftists... Fortunately they failed to get them all.”
There was the founding NAACP, brought forth to challenge the infamous Atlanta Compromise, in which Booker T. Washington, in return for corporate white sponsorship and philanthropy, agreed that African Americans would not demand land, education, voting rights, economic justice, equality before the law or much of anything else. It was this early NAACP that carried on the fight against lynching in the courts of public opinion and the law.
Ida Wells Barnett left the NAACP soon after its founding, dissatisfied with its legalistic approach to combating inequality, and W.E.B. DuBois was eased out by the mid 1930s.
The NAACP of the twenties committed itself to a decades-long struggle to overthrow segregation in the courts. By 1935 the organization retained Charles Hamilton Houston as its general counsel, who mapped out the legal strategy and mentored a stellar team of black and white civil rights lawyers including Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall to carry it out. By the thirties and forties NAACP lawyers were taking hundreds of cases in dozens of states each year challenging segregation in housing, jobs, education and more, along with many of the kinds of capital cases that would have been plain lynchings just a few years earlier. Sometimes they even won. Thurgood Marshall argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won 29, including the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education, supposedly outlawing school segregation once and for all.
At the same time, Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall worked with the FBI to purge the NAACP of leftists, many of whom were the bones and flesh of local NAACP chapters. Fortunately they failed to get them all.
Quite apart from the national NAACP, there was also the NAACP of its scores of local branches, often staffed and led by the very activists Wilkins and Marshall tried to eliminate. One of them was Birmingham's Edgar D. Nixon, a one-time local head of Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and instigator of the Birmingham Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks was the local branch secretary. With official and unofficial white economic retaliation and violence frequently orchestrated against the families, businesses and persons of local NAACP members, some Southern branches were forced to operate in near secrecy at times. Southern authorities demanded that the NAACP hand over its membership lists, often fining local chapters and locking up their leaders for failure to comply. Medgar Evers was not the only local NAACP leader to be murdered in the south, though he was probably one of the last.
With the Freedom Movement over and the struggle against Jim Crow past, the NAACP's national leadership lost its way in the eighties and nineties. A series of disastrous national leaders ending with Ben Chavis alienated the NAACP's corporate funders while they lacked the personal integrity and vision to organize anything to take their place. They were duly ousted, and by the dawn of the twenty-first century, corporate America was very much in charge at the national NAACP in the persons of black corporate execs.
Throughout the last eighty years then, there have always been at least two NAACPs. There has always been a national apparatus, its officers, spokespeople and programs visibly dependent on the philanthropy of corporate America, and the good will of at least one out of two corporate parties. But the NAACP's local chapters have always been largely free to imitate the national leadership, or to cultivate local memberships, develop independent local agendas in response to local conditions and opportunities, and the means to fund themselves independently.
So it is that in many of the NAACP's local chapters and branches, the tradition of struggle, the legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and W.E.B. DuBois survives and thrives to this day. These are the people, the NAACP members with something to celebrate. These are truly the people of struggle, and we at BAR are proud to struggle and to celebrate with them.
President Obama to address NAACP July 16 on Criminal Justice
President Obama is scheduled to speak to the NAACP this Thursday, July 16. The president's apologists always remind us that Obama isn't, can't and should not be expected to act as president of black America, that he has to be the president of all America including Wall Street banksters, military contractors and the prison industrial complex. Maybe this is why the First Black President turns every speech to or on black people into a sort of “Sista Souljah moment;” Every Fathers' Day, for example, is an opportunity to crack on black fathers, and every speech on Africa a chance to riff on African “corruption” as the primary cause of the continent's woes. The president's address to the NAACP is supposed to unveil some new initiative on the criminal justice front. He has a chance to break his streak, or to continue it.
The fact is the US is under five percent of the world's population, but accounts for almost a quarter of the planet's prisoners. The US locks up more people for longer stretches and flimsier reasons than anyplace else on earth. African Americans are one eighth the nation's population and just under half its prisoners. Many scholars have pointed out that since 1980, the US prison population has increased fivefold, while crime actually peaked almost ten years earlier. As a high Justice Department official said in a hearing held by Virginia Senator Jim Webb on the issue of mass black incarceration last year, “It wasn't really about crime. It was about how we chose to respond to crime.”
The US decided to lock up five times as many people for the same amount of crime as it did before 1980. We now have 2.3 million people in prison. Of forty million African Americans, more or less, at least 1.1 million are in prisons and jails. Prison has come to be the main way that government lays its hand upon black families.
Decarceration, Not Incarceration
BAR asked the people at Critical Resistance, an organization devoted to turning public policy away from the failed prison industrial complex and toward a system of restorative justice for a peek at what a real policy of reforming criminal justice might look like.
“The prison industrial complex,” CR's Helia Rasti told us, “is not about public safety. Real public safety comes from investing in healthy communities, rather than policing and prisons.” Nyabinga Dzimdahwe of the African Peoples Socialist Party in Florida agreed. “The criminal justice system is not about justice at all. It's a tool of domination, pure and simple.”
We imagine that President Obama will make a nod toward a little more funding to re-integrate ex-offenders into communities, but that's not nearly enough. Real American leadership, and real black leadership would make mass black incarceration a political issue, but most so-called black leaders are afraid even to mouth the words.
- It's high time to make decarceration, not incarceration the aim of policy.
- It's time to outlaw felony disenfranchisement, which prevents those convicted of felonies in many states from voting.
- It's time to repeal and sunset all the mandatory minimum and two and three strikes laws in every state and local jurisdiction.
- It's time to end all life sentences for juveniles and to end the incarceration of children in adult institutions.
- It's time to require racial and ethnic impact statements for all sentencing legislation which will predict the percentages of those sentenced, and roll them back where discriminatory impacts are found.
That's what real leadership would look like. We're sure lots of NAACP members, and their local branches and chapters agree with us. We're not at all sure about the NAACP's national leaders. We suspect that many of them have lost the capacity to imagine themselves in opposition to anything that government does, now that the face of the president is black. But like we said, there have always been at least two NAACPs.
Based in Atlanta, B ruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.