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Turning 100, NAACP fights to keep struggle alive

Associated Press | 2/18/2009, 4:09 a.m.
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond stands alongside a more youthful image of himself at the 40th Annual NAACP Image Awards Pre-Show in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. The civil rights organization, which turned 100 years old last Thursday, faces a daunting modern challenge now: convincing people that the struggle still continues. AP /Earl Gibson III

That era came to a close with the great triumphs of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts.

After the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys, some blacks turned militant and embraced violence as a tactic. Black Power was born. Marchers carried rifles instead of Bibles, raised black-gloved fists instead of picket signs.

To some, the NAACP began to resemble a new Booker T. Washington, out of step with the times.

Some of the group’s most significant post-’60s achievements, according to a timeline on the NAACP Web site, include helping keep conservative Robert Bork off the Supreme Court and ex-Klansman David Duke out of the U.S. Senate; registering hundreds of thousands of voters; leading marches; and pushing the issue of diversity in corporations and on television.

“In the second 50 years, I think their effectiveness has been reduced because they are perceived more as a group just trying to improve things for black people,” says Branch, the historian. “They don’t have that broader claim on the American heritage and mission.”

Danielle Belton, a popular blogger known as The Black Snob (http://www.blacksnob.com), has placed the NAACP on her list of “The Fallen,” between Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson.

“It was partially a joke, and partially a critique,” Belton says. “They seem to have been unable to adapt to the post-1960s, to the new challenges in the black community. They’re stuck in their technique, in their mind-set.”

The NAACP reached a low point in the early 1990s, when it faced a $4 million deficit and lacked the funds to pay bills, salaries or even severance for laid-off workers.

Evers-Williams, who had belonged to the NAACP since Medgar gave her a membership on her 18th birthday, was asked to run for board chairman. She won by one vote. During her three-year tenure, she worked tirelessly to raise funds — Bond says her health suffered due to overwork — and she is credited with restoring the NAACP to prominence.

“I did not receive one cent of compensation for my work,” she notes, without bitterness. “It was something I felt I had to do. I was honored and blessed to fill that position.”

The culture wars and affirmative action battles of the 1990s kept race a polarizing topic even as the black middle class expanded and blacks cracked various glass ceilings. A civil rights backlash developed from decades of white guilt and new demands for black accountability.

“Black America’s main problem is neither overt racism nor more subtle ‘societal’ racism,” the conservative black scholar John McWhorter wrote in 2004. “Lifting blacks up is no longer a matter of getting whites off our necks. We are faced, rather, with the mundane tasks of teaching those ‘left behind’ after the civil rights victory how to succeed in a complex society — one in which there will never be a second civil rights revolution.”

In 2007, Bruce S. Gordon abruptly resigned as NAACP CEO because of differences with the unwieldy 64-member board, including Gordon’s desire to focus on practical solutions rather than political advocacy.

Reviving a legacy