Future of NAACP lies in local leadership and youth

The NAACP will remain dedicated to its longstanding goals of civil rights and voter disenfranchisement, but it cannot be at the expense of other issues, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson told a packed room during the organization’s 110th national convention in Detroit.

“We must define the fight. Recognize what fight we are in as opposed to allowing others to dictate what fight we should be in,” Johnson said. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter “should not be seen as competition. We need to define who we are and what we represent. What we represent is our young people and [they] should have a voice. If they choose the NAACP, great. But if they don't, we still love them.”

Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, with members throughout the United States and the world advocating for their communities. Its annual national convention brings together nearly 10,000 social justice advocates and civil rights leaders.

In recent years, some detractors have leveled the criticism that the NAACP has outlived its usefulness. NAACP leaders scoff at that notion.

“Let's be honest: We have a reputation for being old,” Karen Boykin-Towns, national vice chair of the Board of Directors, said during the public mass meeting. “As long as racism, bigotry and intimidation are operating in board rooms, schools and the White House, we must prepare our next generation of social justice advocates to be on the front lines and fight.”

Ruth Story, who has been a member of the NAACP for 40 years, has another perspective.

“I'm a little discouraged. I don't think we're doing all we can do,” said Story, 75, of Gulfport, Miss. “We've sort of gotten lazy and we're not pushing for what we should. I don't know about other branches, but we're not where we used to be. Going backward ought to put the fear of God in us as Black people.”

During a 50-minute speech, President Johnson emphasized that the NAACP's real work is being done in the organization’s 2,200 branches in 47 states. He pointed to the power of Black women and young people that's always been there.

“What we need most are local leaders to do the work,” Johnson said. “We are the power America is looking for.”

It’s that power that African Americans should use to change public policy, argued Leon W. Russell, chair of the NAACP Board of Directors. Russell connected issues from slavery to Black Lives Matter.

“I want you to understand who gets what, when they get it and how they get it,” Russell said. “Public policy impacts us in one way or another from the time we are born to the day we die. A policy maker has to sign a birth certificate which proves you exist and another policy maker signs a death certificate before the undertaker can complete your final arrangements. The point is simple: Public policies affect every aspect of your lives."

What’s at stake – during a time of turmoil in the country – is how the NAACP deals with substantial issues and ensuring the organization remains relevant to people, particularly in poor social or economic conditions.

“We need [the NAACP] because of the rise in racism and the number of complaints we're getting in the criminal justice and educational system,” said Lonzo Kerr, 76, of Austin, Texas. “We just need to strengthen our ability to address those complaints. [They are] growing in all areas."

Spencer Overton, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said he's excited about the organization's future under Johnson's leadership.

Overton pointed to Johnson's deep network with leaders of foundations, labor and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists. The NAACP’s relationships with leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement and grassroots activists across the country will “bridge Black progressive organizing,” Overton noted.

“Strong institutions transcend individual leaders and temporary legal setbacks and are critical to Black communities,” said Overton. “Derrick has been focused on strengthening the NAACP as an institution. I'm excited about the future of the NAACP.”

Still, Overton echoed the NAACP leaders’ sentiments that the civil rights organization is only as strong as its local branches. For example, Overton pointed out, the Joint Center's research on Black congressional staffers could not have been done without NAACP local branches. It's also crucial for other policy issues, he said.

The NAACP should have a deeper focus on civic engagement and increased economic opportunities moving forward, Overton said.

“NAACP members play an essential role for Black America,” Overton said. “For too long, too many American businesses have profited off of a large pool of cheap Black labor that lacks the education and skill to freely move into other jobs. Technology is changing the nature of jobs for many Black workers. The NAACP can play a critical role in ensuring that Black communities have a seat at the table in participating and thriving in good jobs in the future economy.”

Getting young people active and remaining in the NAACP is an area of concern for some, but others are convinced millennials and Generation Z will carry the NAACP mission forward.

"I got involved [in the NAACP] because I thought it would be a good experience, growing up as a Black man and guys getting shot and stuff," said Jairus Kelly,16 of Waldorf, Md. "I just want to make an impact when I get older. The NAACP does good work.” As for other organizations, Kelly said, “We should join them or all come together as one.”

Kamilia Landrum is a prime example of millennial leadership. An NAACP baby, Landrum rose from youth council head at 16 to become executive director of the NAACP’s Detroit Branch.

The Detroit Branch has “made an investment in young people,” said Boykin-Towns. “The executive director is symbolic of that investment in young people. We are so proud so proud of her.”

Landrum, 30, is the youngest executive director in the country, following Donnell White when he was appointed in 2011. He was the youngest at the time.

“We haven't told the story well enough how young people move the NAACP,” Landrum said in a recent podcast called Beyond the Headlines — Detroit. “We are the only organization where seven of our board [seats] are specifically reserved for millennials. They get a seat at the table and get their voices uplifted and heard. Our branch president, Rev. [Wendell] Anthony, has been an advocate and supporter of youth leadership. You've seen that in our previous executive director, Donnell White.”

The younger generation has demands of the NAACP, as well. Brandon Hodges of Detroit said millennials just want their voices to be heard and respected by the older generation. He also says there is a need for jobs for those who may not go to college, but have other skills.

“For millennials it is job placement,” said Hodges, 33. “They want to work and take care of their families.”

Darren A. Nichols is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He spent more than 20 years at The Detroit News covering Detroit City Hall. He reported on the city’s financial collapse that led to the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country.

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