The inauguration of our first president of African descent was a turning point in this nation’s struggle against racism, but it was not the end of the struggle. Black people still suffer more poverty than their white neighbors, poorer education, worse health and shorter life expectancy. There are still fears and divisions among us and politicians who will exploit them.
This was the right moment, therefore, for the gathering in New York City in mid-July of the 100th anniversary convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. More than any other single force in society, it is the NAACP that deserves credit for the victory of American conscience at the ballot box last fall. For a full century the organization has marched, organized, educated and rallied people of all colors to make this a more decent society. It has won court battles and lobbied to change laws. America is better because of it. The organization has done its job well.
It’s not entirely clear, though, that it still has a job. On the eve of the centennial convention there were voices around the country questioning whether the NAACP has any further relevance. Only time will tell, but the latest indications are promising.
The organization recently took on its youngest-ever president, Benjamin Jealous; his previous job was president of the venerable San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, which focuses on economic justice and ethnic change. Those are the right priorities for the NAACP right now. Jealous showed he understands that when he addressed the convention. He said the NAACP is a “very black organization,” but “not a black organization” — black in its roots and constituency, but transcending race in its agenda for the nation. He promised to broaden the organization’s mission from civil rights to human rights. He spoke of strengthening alliances with other constituencies, and showed he meant it by giving a prominent place at the convention to Latino leaders. He recalled that the NAACP is, “from our origin, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic human rights organization.”
Those words are not just history — they’re also a challenge. They remind us that the NAACP, through most of its history, was very much a multi-ethnic alliance, mostly between blacks and Jews. Begun in 1909 as a committee of several dozen community leaders, it was re-launched as a mass-membership movement in 1914 under its chairman, Joel Spingarn, a Jewish literary scholar. In 1930, Spingarn moved on to the NAACP’s presidency, a post he was succeeded in by his brother Arthur. From 1930 until 1975, the NAACP was led consistently by a Jewish president and a black chief executive.
Recall, too, that the organization’s era of greatest glory was the post-World War II civil rights revolution. This was a 25-year battle against racial and religious discrimination, starting in the courts and legislatures and later moving to the streets. It was launched by the NAACP in partnership with a confederation of Jewish organizations called the National Community Relations Advisory Council (later renamed the Jewish Council for Public Affairs). The black-Jewish alliance wasn’t a metaphor; it had an address, a staff and a name, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and when it was strong it made history.
We all know that the two communities parted ways. It happened partly because of disagreements in the 1970s over issues like affirmative action, and partly because both sides needed to turn inward.
Now it’s time to turn outward again and address the problems of a society in crisis. Benjamin Jealous issued a challenge. The Jewish community should take him up on it. No two communities understand the meaning of justice and injustice better. When we work together, society is richer for it.