Weighing the Relevancy of Civil Rights Organizations

As the annual NAACP convention concludes, Ed Gordon ask longtime civil rights organizers whether the old-line organizations are still relevant. Guests include John Mack, head of the Los Angeles Urban league and Joe Madison, radio talk show host and civil rights activist.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Today in Milwaukee, the NAACP wraps up its 96th annual convention. The agenda included sessions on race relations, Social Security and economic empowerment. Earlier in the week, Chairman Julian Bond expressed disappointment that President Bush has turned down the fifth consecutive invitation to address the group. At the same time, convention organizers wonder: Where were the participants? The NAACP said it expected 8,000 people to register. As of Tuesday, fewer than 4,000 had reportedly signed up. The apparent decline in numbers suggests the larger question: Do Americans, particularly younger ones, regard civil rights organizations as irrelevant?

Joining us from NPR West in Los Angeles is John Mack, the recently retired president of the Los Angeles Urban League, and from Washington, DC, radio talk show host and civil rights activist Joe Madison join us.

Gentlemen, welcome. John Mack, let me start with you. As of July 1st, you retired after 36 years as president of the National Urban League's Los Angeles division. I'm curious--you've heard this question over and over again. Do you believe--and I suspect I know the answer here--these groups, these organizations, to be irrelevant?

Mr. JOHN MACK (Former President, Los Angeles Urban League): First of all, Ed, thanks for having me on the show. No, I absolutely do not. I mean, there are all kinds of indications that, more than ever before, there's a need for civil rights organizations such as the Urban League, NAACP and others. No question about it, we do face a challenge in making that connection with the younger generation, people who've not had prior experience. But just yesterday, the Los Angeles Urban League and the United Way issued a report, The State of Black LA, modeled after the National Urban League's State of Black America, where it became very obvious that African-Americans--there's a major gap. We still lag far behind in the economic arena, education, health, the criminal justice system. You know, the reality is that the organizations are necessary. We have a lot of work to do. You know, we have pending...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MACK: ...a Supreme Court position to be filled, so--but yes, we do have to do our homework and make sure that we adjust to the contemporary era that we're currently facing in our young people.

GORDON: Joe Madison, a look at the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rainbow/PUSH--if you take those to be the four largest organizations as relates to civil rights, in particular within the black community, one has to say, though, fairly, that over the last decade, these groups as a collective have lost political clout, and clout, quite frankly, within the black community.

Mr. JOE MADISON (Radio Talk Show Host): Well, I don't know if they have lost political clout when you think about it. Let's take some of the issues that they have to deal with. The University of Michigan affirmative action case--it was the collective groups that you just mentioned that, in fact, pushed these cases, assigned lawyers to cases, raised money for these cases. When there was discrimination at Cracker Barrel, it was the NAACP, along with other attorneys, that went in and filed a successful lawsuit. Look at Myrtle Beach with the discrimination there; the NAACP--not some irrelevant group--went in, has taken this case up through the courts in South Carolina. In the French Quarters in New Orleans, where a African-American male was beaten, we find that there's a double standard in terms of prices of drinks, even cover charges. Again, NAACP organized a demonstration, attempting to work with the administration down there. We have death row cases.

These are cases that don't get the kind of attention in the era of terrorism and some of the other headline items that dominate the news. And...

GORDON: So, John Mack, perhaps what we should do is suggest what Joe Madison is saying there, in that these organizations arise to the top when it's most appropriate. Is that fair?

Mr. MACK: That's absolutely fair. We're around at the time of greatest need. You know, one of the interesting human circumstances is that if people don't think they need you, they tend to look in other directions, but whenever there's trouble, you find the civil rights organizations. And...

GORDON: And I think--OK.

Mr. MADISON: And I was going to say, John--and, as always, it's a great honor to be with him, because he's one of the true veterans here. I've always said when African-Americans find themselves discriminated and in trouble, there's usually two people they ask for. Two--one is Jesus Christ and the second one is--where is the NAACP? It inevitably happens.

GORDON: Yeah. John, let me ask you, as relates to coming off of the report you mentioned early on, The State of Black LA--and it really mirrors much of the state of black America in this country. Do we realize--black America in particular, but America in general--the dire state, if you will, that many minorities are in, in this country?

Mr. MACK: I think too few people want to really deal with the harsh reality. You know, there are many who would like to think that, you know, black folk have had their day, we've achieved our civil rights objectives; `What are you complaining about?' But the hard facts indicate what while, yes, we've made progress in certain areas--especially I look at the corporate suites; you find more African-Americans moving up the executive ranks. But for every one Dick Parsons, you know, you have thousands of unemployed African-Americans. We've been--we've made gains politically. The challenge--the problem is that people would like to deal with the easy issues and challenges.

But we're excited in Los Angeles, frankly, with the election of our new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, By the way, where--the African-American vote was very decisive in helping him get elected with the involvement and participation of the various organizations we're talking about. So it's about will, it's about hope, it's about commitment. We have to keep on keeping, and not let people talk us out of doing our work.

GORDON: Let me tell our director, Angie(ph), here, we're going to stay with our group here through the end of the segment.

Joe Madison, let me now say to you--you have, quite frankly, been one who has been an agitator within the civil rights community for years and years, when you felt, perhaps, that the group was resting on their laurels. Do you believe it to be the case now that internally, these people who lead us, if you will, are going to have to take a hard, fast look at what's going on, what they've been doing, and find new ways to become more powerful, if you will, and, quite frankly, more relevant to young people?

Mr. MADISON: No question about it. That has always been the case. If one thinks getting civil rights was difficult during the era of Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall, then we are now in an era of trying to keep these civil rights. There is a force in this country that would turn back the hands of the clock and the back success that we've had in civil rights at every opportunity. The next two appointments to the United States Supreme Court--there will be a litmus test, and that litmus test will be affirmative action. It will be issues related to the death penalty. It will be issues that are very important to African-Americans. So you're right; you always have to be relevant.

Look, when I came into the NAACP, Ed, as you remember, we were both living in Detroit. I was 23 years old. Roy Wilkins was still the executive director. Roy Wilkins came up in an era when the civil rights bill, the Voting Rights Act, was prominent, and it was very important to get those passed. Then comes Benjamin Hooks, and who did we have leading the administration? Ronald Reagan. That brought in an entirely different set of circumstances and problems. Then we go from Ronald Reagan to Bush, a new set of problems and circumstances. Every era has different challenges and requires different solutions. But one thing is true: We always need the energy and creativity of young people. Every social progress, every social movement on this planet, has always utilized the energy and the creativity of our youth, and you must find a way to relate to them...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MADISON: ...and include them in the process.

GORDON: John Mack, the progress that we've seen these groups assist us in some say is a Catch-22 in terms of who may, indeed, follow in terms of this generation to lead, because now that doors are open in other arenas and areas, the best and the brightest may go there as opposed to within this. When you look behind you and see who's coming, are you satisfied that this will be covered?

Mr. MACK: Ed, I'm not completely comfortable. The reality is that, yes, you're right. Today bright young African-American men and women have many more options than they did when I was coming along. And once upon a time, you know, organizations like the Urban League, NAACP, the post office--just a few places where--towns that black people could work. But, you know, they can go into business now; there are politics and a variety of other arenas. But we have to make sure that we instill in our young people a kind of commitment and a recognition that, if we're not going to do it, we can't expect anybody else to do it. And I think we have to have--we have to interest them by making sure that we are relevant in addressing issues and needs that are important to them.

GORDON: Yeah. Joe...

Mr. MACK: And I might point out quickly on the other point--that's why we're excited, frankly, about Marc Morial, our national president of the Urban League, who is a young man, 45 years of age, and Marc understands the importance of making that connection. He's bringing a kind of energy and excitement. And I think that that's going to stand us in good stead in the future.

Mr. MADISON: And I always ask...

GORDON: Joe, I got about 30 seconds left, literally.

Mr. MADISON: Yeah.

GORDON: And you know radio time. Talk to me about the struggles, though, of these organizations and the ties to corporate America and financial woes. That's a big problem here.

Mr. MADISON: Well, I always ask the question--it's not so much what the leaders are going to do. It's not what Mfume or Madison or Gregory or Mack are going to do. It's--question is really: What are you going to do about it? And when you consider the tremendous amount of monies that we spend in making corporations in this country wealthy...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MADISON: ...then those corporations have an obligation to make sure that organizations like the Urban League, the NAACP or whatever are strong and constantly fighting for social justice, because...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MADISON: ...if, in fact, we do not become a main part of the economic and social fabric of this country...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MADISON: ...then they run the risk of going under. We're all...

GORDON: In deep, deep trouble.

Mr. MADISON: ...tied together in this, and so that's why...

GORDON: All right.

Mr. MADISON: ...corporate America should step up, because we are as much a supporter of corporate America as any other entity in this country.

Mr. MACK: I agree with you, Joe.

GORDON: All right. Joe Madison, John Mack, thank you so much. And, unfortunately, we've lost a great voice in civil rights. We'll be saluting him in just a moment. Thank you, gentlemen.

This is NPR News.

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