The NAACP at the Crossroads

Article excerpt

The advent of Black History Month in February will bring the usual spurt of debates about civil rights. The problem with such reflection, however, is that, while it may be entertaining and useful for venting steam--like President Clinton's advisory panel on civil rights--it is unable to provide any comprehensive recommendations for solving worsening problems. The impasse lies with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As it celebrates its eighty-eighth birthday on February 12, the NAACP remains a shadow of what was once an organization on the cutting edge of the movement.

The question prompting the current identity crisis is the same one that dichotomized the organization decades ago: how valid is integration as a civil rights goal? Frustrated by the intense attacks on civil rights by right-wing reactionaries, a growing number of the NAACP's leaders have recently expressed strong doubts about pursuing the goal. Like Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century and W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s, these African Americans have been drawing the wagons around themselves, feeling that the best strategy for survival in a racist society is self-segregation.

When the NAACP rejected self-segregation decades ago in a bitter battle that further defined the organization, Du Bois, one of its founders, was forced to resign as editor of the Crisis, its journal. So for the organization to today imply any doubt in its founding strategy is further indication of how severely it has been damaged by years of weak leadership and infighting.

This is the same NAACP which led the nineteen-year school desegregation movement that in 1954 won the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The landmark case overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine established by the High Court in 1896, which relegated African Americans to second-class citizenship or worse. Brown cleared the way for the passage of the most comprehensive civil rights laws in the nation's history and for subsequent court orders to enforce and expand the decision.

Despite violent white opposition, the NAACP pressed for integration. Not even when African Americans themselves began questioning the busing of their children into hostile white areas of cities like Boston and Detroit did the organization waver in its course. For the NAACP knew, as one white woman spat, "it's not the bus but the niggers" that was the problem.

The extent of the NAACP's debate over integration today is best demonstrated by the differing positions of Dennis C. Hayes, the organization's general counsel, and his assistant Willie Abrams. Hayes believes the problem is caused by confusing integration with assimilation--a concept he firmly rejects because it is "built upon a philosophy of white supremacy." All versions of assimilation, Hayes insists, "operate under the implicit assumption that there is something wrong with the racial otherness of black folk." When discussing those blacks who want to segregate themselves, Hayes states:

While, theoretically, we might imagine that a racial minority

group might for positive reasons want to segregate

themselves even though there exists complete openness

from the dominant society, this is not the reality of racial

politics in this country. Indeed, when Booker T.

Washington called for segregation--in part because he

accepted the position that blacks were unfit and must

prove themselves to whites before segregation could

end--the reality was that many African Americans

adopted segregation as an accommodation to, and protection

from, white racism.

While this is understandable from a self-survival

point of view, it has been the NAACP's considered wisdom

over eighty-eight years that such an accommodation to

white racists . …