COLUMN ONE : Generation Gap Tears at NAACP : Many young blacks turn away from the group that waged key civil rights battles. Skeptical of aging leaders, they find other organizations more relevant or inspirational.


Los Angeles attorney Melanie Lomax and her mother, Almena, are beyond the standard mother-daughter squabbling, but one subject is guaranteed to incite debate: the NAACP.

Almena Lomax, a retired newspaper publisher in her 70s, has been a lifetime member of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and continues to support it. But her daughter, general counsel of the Los Angeles chapter from 1984 to 1987, quit the national organization and is now a critic.

"There is an element of compromise in the NAACP's approach," Melanie Lomax, 41, complains. "They are so obligated to large corporations (for financial support) they have not . . . dealt effectively with economic empowerment issues." As a result, she says, "they have reduced their own relevance" to a younger generation.

After more than 80 years as the nation's premier black advocacy group, the proud, battle-scarred NAACP is beset by a generation gap. Many young black professionals complain that the organization fails to vigorously address important issues--from inner-city poverty and drug dependency to opportunities for black entrepreneurship and corporate advancement--and they have channeled their energies into other groups that offer more practical benefit or inspirational allure.

Many younger middle-class blacks have turned away from an organization that played a major role in desegregating public schools, pushing through the 1967 Voting Rights Act and lobbying for national fair housing legislation; they have instead joined social service organizations or groups of black business professionals. Still others have been drawn to the radical messages of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Michael McGee, the Milwaukee alderman who has threatened to provoke a race war unless substantial improvements are made in conditions for blacks.

Many prominent blacks warn that, unless the NAACP can redefine its mission and reinvigorate its leadership, the organization that once was a platform for such forceful, youthful leaders as Julian Bond and Medgar Evers risks losing the support of a whole generation of black Americans. Already, recruitment in the NAACP is lagging behind growth in the nation's black population.

"We're talking about evolution here. What worked in the '60s didn't work in the '80s and won't work in 2000," said Pam Shaw, a 31-year-old Baltimore attorney who let her NAACP membership lapse in 1987.

The NAACP's aging leadership, headed by Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks, 66, is viewed skeptically by younger blacks. One NAACP member, who asked that he not be identified, calls them "a bunch of old men up on a podium who refuse to relinquish power to those who see the world more clearly."

Bowyer G. Freeman, a 31-year-old hospital financial officer who is president of the NAACP's Howard County, Md., branch, worries that the organization's top management may already have missed its chance. "I don't know that I can say for sure (the old leaders) are out of touch with young black Americans," he said, "but I know they don't hear as well."

A Philosophical Split

The generational split occurs as the NAACP faces challenges on other fronts--a philosophical divide that partly reflects the non-traditional thinking of many young black professionals. The nomination of Clarence Thomas, a black conservative, for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court has brought the divisions into public view.

The NAACP's opposition to Thomas--among the most troublesome for the nominee--has sparked a showdown between its headquarters in Baltimore and a renegade 150-member chapter in Compton, Calif., that endorsed him.

Not only did the rift lead to charges that the national organization is intolerant of dissent, but it spotlighted a debate over whether the NAACP should retain its historical emphasis on legal remedies to end the vestiges of racial discrimination or should turn more to the kind of self-help programs advocated by conservatives such as Thomas and a large number of young black professionals.

"I believe in the work ethic of America," said Royce Esters, the Compton chapter president.

For all of the NAACP's problems, even its toughest critics do not expect it to fade any time soon as a powerful player on the national scene. It commands a $6.5-million annual budget and claims a half-million members. It continues to draw more recognition and respect than any other black group.

NAACP leaders insist generational differences are normal and can be overcome. Some point to their own impatient demands on the organization's leaders in the 1940s and '50s. They argue that the current crop of Young Turks will ultimately understand and embrace the NAACP's approach.

Hooks and other officials have also sought to make younger blacks more aware of the sacrifices and gains made by older members. "When I see black people sitting in the main dining rooms of some of the classiest Southern hotels . . . I wonder about the sanity of those who say that little has changed in America," Hooks told the NAACP's annual convention this summer. "If we tell our children that nothing has changed, then we cannot prepare them for the struggle, for who wants to struggle if the struggle is in vain?"

Civil Rights Role

Since its founding on Feb. 12, 1909, the NAACP has been in the vanguard of black Americans' struggle for equality and economic advancement.

In the early part of the century, the organization fought to open doors for blacks through elimination of so-called Jim Crow laws that required segregation of the races. The NAACP scored its most significant judicial victory with Brown vs. Board of Education, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 by its legal counsel, then-48-year-old Thurgood Marshall, who went on become the first black to sit on the high court.

The Brown decision effectively terminated the "separate but equal" doctrine and ushered in the civil rights movement of the late '50s and '60s.

The NAACP played a major role in the 1963 march on Washington, at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have a Dream" speech. Its leaders were in the front ranks during King's march on Selma, Ala. And the NAACP led the lobbying effort to pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which helped to open public accommodations to blacks.

Toward the end of the '60s, however, serious challenges to the NAACP's leadership began to emerge from militant and separatist groups, including the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party. Their leaders labeled the NAACP's national leaders, such as then Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, as "Uncle Toms" more interested in integrating with whites than empowering poor blacks.

Speaking to cheering supporters in Cleveland in 1964, black nationalist Malcolm X declared that blacks were "fed up with the dillydallying, pussyfooting, compromising approach that we've been using toward getting our freedom. We want freedom now, but we're not going to get it saying, 'We Shall Overcome.' "

Today's membership in the NAACP is no greater than it was in the mid-1960s--about 500,000 by its own estimates. The organization rejected requests for specifics. However, officials say membership has grown since 1977, when Hooks was chosen to replace the retiring Wilkins. Membership at that time had dwindled to between 250,000 and 300,000.

Despite weakness on the membership front, the NAACP remains an influential force in Washington, its endorsement on civil rights issues coveted and its opposition feared. The organization is also a leader in the drive for passage of the 1991 Civil Rights Act, which would reverse five 1987 Supreme Court decisions that currently make it more difficult to prove claims of job discrimination. And NAACP sources say that, when President Bush was considering nominating Thomas, White House aides placed a private call to Hooks--who is a friend of the President--and were disappointed at not getting the NAACP's support.

The organization has quietly pressured businesses to reinvest some of their profits in black communities and businesses. Since 1981, the NAACP has reached "fair share" agreements with 57 corporations that it estimates have resulted in more than $1 billion a year in procurement contracts for black-owned companies, $100 million in advertising with black-owned newspapers and radio stations and $250 million in insurance policies sold by black-owned companies. Another program offers scholarships and recognition to 25,000 black students each year.

Current Agenda

The NAACP's agenda is now packed with legislative battles that are designed primarily to protect earlier gains. "When I took over this organization, I had plans for expanding the mission of the NAACP," Hooks said. "I had no idea I would be fighting to retain what I thought we had already won."

Those victories have clearly made a difference. Today's younger blacks have not experienced the most blatant forms of racial discrimination.

Yet, the organization may be a victim of its own success. With younger blacks spared much of the humiliation and constraints suffered by their parents and grandparents, "they tend to be somewhat indifferent and lax in their attitude," said John H. Franklin, professor of African-American history at Duke University. "It's a generational problem that's not peculiar to the NAACP, because you see it in the (black) churches and in the political organizations."

However, even younger blacks who are active in civil rights issues view the NAACP as sluggish and out-of-date.

The very term "colored people" in the organization's name seems anachronistic. Many argue that the NAACP is without an agenda that would help them advance their careers and move up the economic ladder, and they fault the NAACP for not spending enough time combatting crime and poverty.

Derryl L. Reed, a 44-year-old insurance company vice president, says his own participation in the NAACP waned about the time that he became seriously interested in his own career development. He joined the National Black MBA Assn. instead and currently serves as its president.

"For the most part, we were the first generation to enter corporate America, and one of the things that drew us together as black MBAs was the fact that there were no organizations or persons who could share our common experience of being isolated in our jobs and careers," he explained.

There are also organizations of black lawyers, journalists, physicians, social workers, municipal administrators, corporate executives, naval officers and druggists.

Young blacks say professional groups address their problems by recognizing their achievements, providing peer support and offering practical strategies for success in predominantly white workplaces. At the most recent annual convention of the National Bar Assn., which drew about 1,000 black lawyers to Indianapolis, delegates participated in workshops such as "A New Frontier for Minority Attorneys: Corporate In-House Counsel Handling Environmental Law Matters." A conference of black journalists this year featured a panel on "Developing a Polished On-Air Look."

Sheryl Hilliard Tucker, 35-year-old executive editor and vice president of Black Enterprise magazine, said that many black professionals "are joiners and, in an earlier time, would have been in the forefront of the NAACP." But, Tucker said, "They consider the NAACP as being like the Oldsmobile. It's their parents' organization." Tucker is not a member.

Niquita Mitchell, 31, a television producer in Washington, said her parents held a family membership in the NAACP when she was growing up in Minneapolis, but she never joined and views it as "irrelevant."

Mitchell grouses in particular about two recent high-profile fights that NAACP leaders waged: The Hollywood branch complained loudly about the depiction of black men in "The Color Purple," the movie version of black writer Alice Walker's novel about a young woman's coming of age in the rural South. The chapter also later criticized members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for overlooking the movie in its annual Academy Awards ceremony.

In a second incident, NAACP officers complained about the lack of black managers in professional baseball after former Los Angeles Dodgers' Vice President Al Campanis alleged that the reason there were few blacks in the front offices of professional sports teams was that they "may not have some of the necessities" to run a franchise. Campanis ultimately resigned.

"With all the problems affecting black people," Mitchell asked, "why are they concerned about such silly (issues) as whether 'The Color Purple' wins awards in Hollywood or how many black baseball managers there are? There are more important things for us to be worried about."

Pam Shaw, the Baltimore attorney, contends that spending her time on other activities--such as serving as the headmaster of an alternative high school for high-risk inner-city students, brings her "in direct contact" with people in need. "I don't live in a glass tower," she says, "so, if the choice comes to giving $100 to the NAACP for a dinner or to give it to the school for books, it's an easy choice. I give to the school. I view myself and my work as being on the front line in the black community."

To young black professionals, the contemporary civil rights battleground is the corporate suites--where, they say, the NAACP has little influence and is unwilling to engage in combat.

Melanie Lomax's own break with the national office occurred after she called for a boycott of records by black artists--such as Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross--for their failure to hire blacks in behind-the-scenes jobs. Lomax said that, during the incident, Hooks--whose organization often asks black entertainers to lend their names to fund-raising efforts--"came out and reprimanded me for attacking black recording artists. I left the NAACP then with a bad taste in my mouth."

Lomax accused the NAACP of being so dependent on contributions from corporations that it won't challenge companies' hiring and promotion policies. The NAACP should be more confrontational, she said, initiating economic boycotts and protests against firms that refuse to promote black executives more rapidly.

NAACP leaders acknowledge privately that the bulk of the association's annual budget comes from donations by large corporations and wealthy individuals.

"The real problem is that the NAACP lacks power where it counts most," said Clifford Alexander, a former secretary of the Army who is now a prominent black lawyer in Washington. "Thousands upon thousands" of black lawyers and middle-level executives feel "stifled" in their careers as they bump up against glass ceilings, he said. The NAACP, he admonished, "needs to have people who are inside corporations with clout."

Making major strides against contemporary forms of discrimination, however, would be a difficult challenge. In breaking down discriminatory legal barriers of the past, civil rights groups had clear-cut goals and could easily measure achievements. Discrimination today can be more subtle. Even as blacks advance in corporations, law firms or the media, for example, few are among the top-paid decision-makers in any field.

In the meantime, some NAACP leaders seek to shift the organization in new directions by working from within.

Bowyer Freeman of Howard County, Md., campaigned for his chapter presidency by advocating a more aggressive push to include younger members, promising to sponsor workshops on minority business formation, involvement in the school system and aggressive monitoring of the police.

"There were questions raised about whether I should hold office because I'm not a life member," said Freeman, who was elected last December. "The (national) organization doesn't make that distinction, but some of the older people weren't ready to let go, and this was their issue."

Change, Freeman allows, "comes hard."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World