At one level, Barack Obama's address to the NAACP on Thursday at its 100th annual convention will be a testament to its success.
But Obama's presence is also indicative of the shifting grounds of the civil-rights landscape: He comes from a younger generation of activists with a new set of assumptions about politics and advocacy—a demographic the NAACP has had difficulty connecting with in recent years. Last year’s appointment of 36-year-old Ben Jealous, a community organizer, as president of the organization was widely interpreted as an acknowledgment that it needs to bridge the gap. Jealous' candidacy drew strong opposition from some older members looking for a more traditional résumé, but has fueled hopes among reformers that he can revive the NAACP.
The flagship institution of the civil-rights movement faces a variety of challenges as it moves into the next century. On an organizational level, it's consistently rated as one of the least-efficient major charities by outside analysts and three of its most recent presidents have resigned for reasons ranging from a sex scandal to clashes with the older leadership. The NAACP has faced tough criticism from activists who argue that it’s grown out of touch with the grassroots and has failed to deploy new technologies and tactics to encourage broader participation. At the same time, the changing politics of race in America have made the group’s agenda less obvious and more difficult to articulate.
View Our Gallery: The NAACP at 100
“There's no doubt it is no longer as relevant as it once was,” says Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. “Part of it is standard institutional decay. Any organization that has existed as long as the NAACP—and been through as much dramatic social change as the NAACP—is going to have a little difficulty finding a niche for itself.”
According to Harris-Lacewell, one obstacle the NAACP faces is in part due to the accomplishments of the previous generation of civil-rights leaders. Many of the most pressing issues cited by activists today—inadequate funding for education, HIV rates among African American women, overincarceration—are tied with broader policy questions, rather than overt racism.
“I would say one of the greatest challenges facing an organization like the NAACP is not only fighting racial inequality, but even convincing and creating a public consensus that racial inequality is the result of something external rather than simply black pathologies,” Harris-Lacewell said.
Partly in response to these issues, which often intersect with policy-reform efforts regardless of race, many prominent new activists have come up through groups beyond the traditional channels of the NAACP and black churches.
“We are more and more products of institutions that may not be African-American ones,” William Jelani Cobb, an associate professor of history at Spelman College, told The Daily Beast.
“When we look at people politically like the Cory Bookers the Barack Obamas and so on, these are folks who are as comfortable in white environments as well as majority-black environments. I think the coalitions we work with will be very different.”
One fast-rising star in the activist community, James Rucker, for example, worked for MoveOn.org before co-founding the online grassroots site ColorofChange.org. The site's co-founder, Van Jones, has worked in human-rights and environmental advocacy. Created after Hurricane Katrina, ColorofChange.org became a rapid success story, drawing particular attention for its effective fundraising and publicity efforts on behalf of the Jena 6.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Rucker said that he was motivated to start the site after Katrina because he felt that the current set of black institutions was ineffective in generating political pressure from the ground-up.
“We had Condoleezza Rice, Bill Cosby, Oprah, everyone else, but when you saw the video of these black lower-income folks, it was not as if there was some black political lobby meeting with Congress and the White House saying, ‘You need to fix this now,’” Rucker said. “The people most connected to those people in those videos in terms of political power were MIA. That was really the reason [for founding the site]. It was a recognition that the institutions we have are doing certain things, but that is not happening.”
The executive director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lateefah Simon, told The Daily Beast that attentiveness to community concerns at the street level, rather than just top-down policy prescriptions and legal battles, was crucial to bringing older institutions into the next decade.
“If you go to the African-American community in San Francisco or New York and ask the woman who's trying to get fresh produce or HIV care…. that summary of what’s most urgent is going to be different than your politician or theologian or the 'thought leaders' in the civil-rights movement.”
Simon, who in 2003 became the youngest MacArthur fellow in history at age 26 for her work with the Center for Young Women's Development, says she is excited to see Jealous, who she knows from his days as a fellow activist in San Francisco, running the show at the NAACP.
“His lived experience as a young black man, his commitment to low-income people, to having real conversations with real people, it signifies that this is definitely a new day,” Simon said.
Others are less sure. Harris-Lacewell, while encouraged by Jealous' résumé, said she was concerned he would have trouble overcoming opposition from the NAACP's older membership.
“Members can exit stage right if they don't like what he's up to,” she said, “and because he's part of our generation, who were born when many of those battles had been won, its hard to get the thirty-somethings to fill in the gap of the fifty-somethings in terms of membership dues and a sense of urgency.”
A spokesperson for the NAACP could not be reached for comment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the date of Obama's speech.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.