At 100, NAACP Shifts Focus From Rights To Justice

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

President Obama told the NAACP on the group's 100th anniversary Thursday that there was no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than education.

"We have to say to our children, 'Yes, if you're African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not," Obama said. "But that's not a reason to get bad grades, that's not a reason to cut class, that's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school.

"No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands, and don't you forget that."

Obama, the nation's first black president, also told the nation's oldest civil rights group that his own political rise was made possible by civil rights leaders.

The speech comes at a pivotal time for the organization, which is redefining its role in the Obama era under a new chairman, Benjamin Jealous.

Jealous has pushed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to expand its work from civil rights to broader human rights. Some members of his organization have resisted that approach.

Kai Wright, a senior writer for the online magazine The Root, says younger people who are interested in race and racial politics have been unimpressed by the group "because it's had this reputation as having a shingle out, but not really doing much."

Wright tells Madeleine Brand, however, that under Jealous the civil rights group is articulating a relevant agenda.

"What he's saying is that the future of the NAACP is not about rights, which is how we have focused our conversation around race for so long," Wright says. "It's about justice. He's very particularly concerned about criminal justice ... reform."

Wright says statistics show that young African-Americans who go through the criminal justice system are deprived of due process. So, he says, Jealous' message of getting due process for those in the criminal justice system can be difficult to sell to a society that wants to be tough on crime.

In the Obama era, Wright says, African-Americans may be able to declare victory in their fight for rights, but when it comes to opportunity, there is still much to be done.

"When you look at the fact that a quarter of the African-Americans live in poverty ... it's very clear that race continues to overlap deeply with class, and so it remains relevant," he says. "But the question is how do we get everybody, black people included, willing to talk about the fact that [race] remains relevant?"

That, Wright says, could be the job of the NAACP.

"The conversation about whether the NAACP is relevant," he says, "is a proxy for the conversation about whether race is relevant."



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from