First Black President To Address NAACP Convention

President Obama delivers the keynote address at the NAACP's convention Thursday night in New York. It's the 100th birthday of the nation's oldest civil rights organziation.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The man who gives the key note address at the NAACP convention today is one of the reasons the group is celebrating. As the country's first black president, Barack Obama's speech has special resonance for the nation's oldest civil rights organization. And joining us to talk about the convention, which is in New York today, is NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, could you also say the fact that America now has a black president marks the end of an era for the NAACP?

WILLIAMS: Well, it really does. You know, clearly if you look back at the history of the NAACP, it was originally an anti-lynching organization. What a different era we live in today. And when you think about all that happened during the 20th century - the NAACP's heyday, Brown v. Board of Education, passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act - in so many ways the idea that there is a black person now in the White House is really a stunning development that may be the capstone of all that the NAACP has worked for throughout the years.

MONTAGNE: Well, with that in mind, let's play a clip of the group's new leader. He is Benjamin Jealous, 36 years old, the youngest person ever to lead the NAACP. He said what we're going to here in an interview on NPR earlier this year.

Mr. BENJAMIN JEALOUS (NAACP): You know what, I'm looking forward to the NAACP going out of business one day. I am looking forward to us being a post-racial society, because race is a lie based on a lie. But at the end of the day, we can't be post-racial until we're post-racism.

MONTAGNE: Again, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. And Juan, what is the role of the civil rights organization today?

WILLIAMS: It's very much a difficult concept, Renee, because I think the whole racial dynamic of a country has changed. I mean, you think about the maturation, if you will, of immigrant communities in the United States, the fact that Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the United States, no longer African-Americans. A civil rights organization like the NAACP - then, you know, the question is exactly what role do they play.

If you look at other groups like the Urban League or 100 Black Men, they tend to focus on specific measures of improvement within the community, and I think they pay specific attention to the class divide that has emerged in the black community, people who have taken advantage of integration and opportunities for education, employment, versus those who seem caught in generational cycles of poverty.

So you know, the civil rights groups today that are really thriving tend to focus on mentoring young people, helping people who are caught in the prison system and especially their families, drug treatment programs; those specific things, Renee, as opposed to general complaints about racism in the society.

MONTAGNE: How would you describe President Obama's relationship to the NAACP?

WILLIAMS: You know, it is somewhat distant. Obviously President Obama did not come up through the NAACP system, either as a young person or as a politician. He really came up as more of what he calls a community organizer, a community activist. He is much more of a person who is, it seems to me, out there working to create the social change, while the NAACP has a history - and I think that's what he's going to celebrate as he speaks today - of what they have accomplished in the past.

MONTAGNE: And what else might be in his message to the group today?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's interesting, Renee, he doesn't usually talk about race because he doesn't think that helps to resolve racial tensions. I think he does not want to be seen as the first black president. He wants to emphasize the idea: he is the president. So when he speaks to a group like the NAACP, he doesn't want to emphasize his blackness. He simply wants to emphasize the notion of how America has changed.

The NAACP, in fact, wanted him to speak at Yankee Stadium and make it this grand setting. He insisted, he wanted it on a smaller scale and he simply wanted to be there to toast them on all that they have accomplished. I don't think he is exactly investested in who they are today or going forward.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR News analyst Juan Williams.

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