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A Century After Its Founding, NAACP Strives To Stay Relevant


The NAACP starts its annual meeting this weekend, which makes it a moment to wrestle with an annual dilemma. How can the nation's oldest civil rights organization stay relevant? In the age of Black Lives Matter, younger activists aren't always sure what the NAACP's role is. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has a preview of the annual meeting.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People received a letter. It was from the leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who wrote, what is the mission and vision for the NAACP today? If you get on a bus, you want to know where the bus is going. We don't know where the NAACP is going.

And according to activist DeRay McKesson, who's part of the Black Lives Matter movement, neither do many millennial activists.

DERAY MCKESSON: I remember being in Ferguson, when we were there in the initial wave of protests. And there was a younger person than me who was, like, just budding 20. And he was like, what is NAACP? And we were, like, shocked - right? - that he just didn't know.

WANG: McKesson is set to speak to the Youth and College Division at the NAACP's national convention in Baltimore. And he says the organization's institutional memory and infrastructure can still play an important role in today's activism. But its next leader, he says, should know how to organize.

MCKESSON: They have a history of choosing reverends, so, like, people who preach. I don't know if that is necessarily the most important skill set moving forward.

WANG: Preaching is part of Cornell Brooks' resume. He was ordained a minister and worked as a lawyer before he started serving as a president and CEO of the NAACP three years ago. He recently left the organization.

CORNELL BROOKS: The board made the decision to not renew my contract. I won't second-guess that.

WANG: And he wouldn't go into more detail about why he thought it happened. Brooks did say that under the Trump administration, social justice activists are facing a threat to many of the civil rights gains the NAACP has been fighting to maintain.

BROOKS: You have a president threatening the right to vote via an executive order, a commission and a tweet. All of us have to be prepared to respond, not with telegraph speed but with Twitter speed.

WANG: It's not clear when the NAACP will announce its next president and CEO. For now, Leon Russell, the group's board chair, is helping to lead. He says letting Brooks go was part of a long-planned revamping of the 108-year-old organization. And their next step is a listening tour to hear from its members and other activists around the country.

LEON RUSSELL: What we're doing is giving them an opportunity to have input. We want the entire organization to buy into supporting our leadership going forward, so we want to get people a voice.

WANG: Russell admits he does want to see better communication between the NAACP's national office and its more than 2,000 local affiliates.

RUSSELL: Some of the first responders to issues across the country are our branch leadership.

WANG: And those leaders will need to continue working on keeping younger activists engaged, according to Gloria Browne-Marshall. She's a member of a New York City branch and the author of "The Voting Rights War: The NAACP And The Ongoing Struggle For Justice." She says it can be difficult for younger members to enter what's become almost like an exclusive club.

GLORIA BROWNE-MARSHALL: This idea that you haven't paid your dues, you didn't walk with King, your life was not on the line - and it's almost as though anyone who did not live the experience of the civil rights movement of the '60s is outside and has to wait their turn to gain a foothold within the organization.

WANG: Browne-Marshall adds that another challenge is balancing a push to be more visible and creative while maintaining older member's expectations of what she calls a, quote, "dignified organization." It's a kind of activism that may not appeal to those in the younger, more decentralized Black Lives Matter movement. But she says there's a need for both.

BROWNE-MARSHALL: There is enough racism to go around, (laughter) I think. There's enough for everybody to take a part in this struggle for justice.

WANG: The NAACP, she says, just has to figure out how to not let the weight of its history keep it from moving ahead.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.