By Owens, Donna M.
The Crisis , Vol. 117, No. 1
In the late 1980s, the Rev. Charles L. White Jr. sued a South Carolina restaurant that refused to serve him and fellow NAACP officials because of their race, and won.
The verdict marked the first time in the state's history that an African American recovered monetary damages for race discrimination, using the claim of outrage. The suit also led state lawmakers to adopt a stronger public accommodations law.
Since that time, the 42-year-old pastor and activist has risen through the ranks to become the NAACFs national field director. Based in Arkansas with his wife and children, White regularly travels the country seeking to right the wrongs of social injustice.
One of White's latest initiatives is aimed at helping branch members nationwide become more aggressive and effective organizers.
"We have mastered how to be triage units for people in crisis, and that won't change, especially in this economic climate," he says. "But at the same time, we have to create a model of change that is more strategic, and involves sustained planning, so that whenever racism creeps in, we're ready."
White believes that NAACP branches should be working to build robust community units that engage as many people as possible, have greater "organizational capacity," and can mobilize quickly when crises arise.
They can use traditional methods, such as phone banks, in tandem with technology such as the Internet and social networking sites.
The specific campaign should depend on the issue, he says, be it school discipline, environmental racism or the accountability of elected officials. Sometimes, it will be necessary to engage partners who may not be viewed as traditional allies, he adds.
"If there's a school problem, the branch president can pick up the phone and call the mayor," White notes. "But how much more effective would it be if 10 parents organized and had strategic tools in place within the community?"
While in some ways that approach is radically different, White says, in other ways it dovetails with the past. In its 100-year history, the NAACP has a rich legacy of organizing marches and sit-ins and using the power of the nation's courts to affect change.
Case in point, Troy Davis: the death row inmate accused of killing police officer Mark MacPhail nearly two decades ago in Savannah, Ga.
The NAACP has been at the forefront of the now-internationally known case, launching a campaign called "I AM TROY" to save Davis. He has been on death row for 18 years and was slated to be executed by the state of Georgia.
Davis' family and many supporters had pushed for a new trial after several witnesses recanted their testimonies. Defense lawyers eventually appealed to the Supreme Court after a federal court denied a request for a new trial in April.
In August, the Supreme Court said the condemned man, who had no prior criminal record, should get another chance to prove his innocence at an evidentiary hearing.
When word came down from the high court, NAACP President and Benjamin Todd Jealous called it "a great day for our justice system."
Indeed, it was also another validation of the nation's oldest civil rights group, say experts.
"I think the NAACPs involvement in the case was decisive," says Ronald Walters, a political scientist and author, whose latest book is The Price of Racial Reconciliation.
Walters notes that while groups such as Amnesty International and prominent individuals such as former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI had expressed support, "it hadn't seemed to make much difference," until the national NAACP stepped in and galvanized its resources.
"Ben [Jealous] began to mobilize people using the chapters," Walters says, adding that the NAACP also helped sway public opinion.
Indeed, when Jealous visited the University of Virginia's Carter G. …