NAACP President Kweisi Mfume promised not to urge delegates at the organization's annual convention to back a boycott of Mississippi's tourist industry because of white voters' refusal to wipe the Confederate emblem from the state flag.
This almost certainly surprised many loyalists of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People spoiling for another flag fight. But Mfume did the right thing for two reasons.
First, the Confederate flag is a repulsive, antiquated symbol of the South's grotesque racial past. But it's still just that, a symbol. Even if Mississippi officials tossed the flag into a museum today, it would be a Pyrrhic victory. It would not save one black farm, improve failing public schools, increase funds for historically black colleges, create more jobs or reduce the poverty of Mississippi's blacks. Second, a flag fight would again lay the NAACP wide open to charges that its leaders elevate safe, showpiece issues to a life and death struggle for African Americans. This way, critics say, the NAACP grabs media and public attention, wins corporate support and racks up a cheap, easy victory, while continuing to retreat from thorny racial and economic problems.
Unfortunately, there is some truth to the charge. The retreat can be traced to the fight against segregation in the 1960s, the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and class divisions that have imploded within black America. By the close of the 1960s the civil rights movement was spent.
The NAACP became the political springboard for the fast-emerging middle class. It fought hard to get more blacks into corporate management, into elite universities, in front of and behind TV cameras. It fought to elect more black Democrats, secure more business loans and, of course, it fought against the Confederate flag. But these battles did not have the remotest bearing on the lives of the black poor. The poor grew more numerous and more desperate, were trapped in segregated or resegregated neighborhoods, shuttled their children off to failing public schools, were plagued by crime, drugs and gangs, and were stuffed into bulging jails.
NAACP leaders were sandwiched in the middle by the twisting political trends, the upward fortunes of the black middle class and downward fortunes of the black poor. A tilt toward a hard-edged activist agenda carried the risk of alienating the corporate donors and the Democratic politicians that NAACP leaders have carefully cultivated. But if the NAACP is to have any hope of reclaiming its place as black America's premier civil rights organization, it must risk bumping heads with its rich backers and top Democrats and mount a no-holds-barred assault on these politically and socially devastating problems:
*The targeting of young blacks by alcohol and tobacco firms with their billboard, TV and radio ads.
*The health hazards that toxic dumps, waste sites and landfills in or near black and low-income neighborhoods pose to many poor and working-class blacks.
*The spread of "three-strikes" laws. These laws warehouse poor blacks for long stretches for mostly nonviolent offenses.
*The plight of thousands of black children who languish in poorly funded and negligent foster care facilities in many states.
*The catastrophic escalation of the number of black women in prisons and the dependence of their children on the states for care.
*The stubborn refusal of Congress to amend the disparity in the racially warped mandatory sentencing laws on drug use and sales. This disparity has done much to skyrocket the number of blacks in state and federal prisons.
*The galloping rise of HIV/AIDS in black communities.
NAACP leaders have pledged themselves to a five-year plan to battle tough social problems. If they keep the pledge, they won't get photo ops and sound bites, or much corporate and political applause. And they certainly won't get quick and easy victories. But the victories they win will be lasting ones.