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NAACP regains prominence by diversifying agenda

Associated Press | 7/27/2011, 2:03 a.m.

LOS ANGELES — Jobs, education, health, housing — the issues driving the NAACP these days look much like the concerns of most Americans, and that’s by design.

As the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People kicks off its 102nd convention this weekend in downtown Los Angeles, the venerable civil rights organization’s policy agenda shows how it has evolved from its decades-long role as a leading fighter against racial inequality to become a staunch advocate for social justice for all minorities.

“They’re doing a much better job by being seen as lobbying for poor, disenfranchised people of all colors,” said Peniel E. Joseph, a Tufts University history professor and author of a book on the civil rights and black power movements.

The strategy has enabled the NAACP to bounce back after a decade in which many charged that the organization had lost its way, becoming irrelevant.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the NAACP was a standard-bearer of the struggle for voting rights, desegregated schools and equal access to everything from water fountains to bus seats. But by four decades later  —  with a black president in the White House — the NAACP’s prominence had trickled to a place in history books.

Membership had dipped from a high of 625,000 at the NAACP’s apogee in the 1964, to less than 300,000 by the mid-2000s.

Five out of seven regional headquarters had closed and an old-guard leadership appeared aloof from young people, who were mainly concerned with the dearth of economic opportunity. The organization itself was ailing, operating for five years in the red, after revenues dipped $9 million.

“There was a great sense in the 1990s that the NAACP had become a museum piece,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Los Angeles-based civil rights activist and columnist. “It was missing in action.”

But the organization has seen a resurgence in recent years, spearheaded by a new president, Benjamin Todd Jealous, in 2008, at age 35 the group’s youngest ever.

Jealous, who had headed a foundation and worked for human rights organization Amnesty International, embarked on a major revitalization campaign by reaching out to young African Americans and people of varied minority groups, broadening the scope of the organization to end discrimination on all fronts.

“By focusing on the nexus of great civil rights issues and human rights issues that are keeping people of color trapped in poverty, folks have responded,” Jealous said, noting that the recession has resulted in a lot of shared interests among different groups. “It’s much easier to get folks together to build coalitions and break barriers.”

The number of members, donors and a network of online partners who promote the NAACP have surged to 525,000. The 18 to 25-year-old group is the fastest growing segment, as the organization has made a point to take up issues affecting younger people, such as college affordability.

The flood of new interest has pushed the organization into the black with a $31 million budget that has been pumped up by donations from foundations and major donors — $4 million in Jealous’ first year — as well as a doubling in the number of small donors to 20,000. By fall, it will have reopened all of the five shuttered regional offices.