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The four major civil rights organizations — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League (NUL), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Rainbow/PUSH — have each staked out their own turf in the civil rights landscape over the years. This summer, the quartet held their annual conventions, and the media focused on how many of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls showed up at each, and whether President Bush even acknowledged their existence.
These conventions have become seasonal rites and attract less and less media coverage, as civil rights issues fade further into the background of American concerns. But these gatherings still serve as rallying points for many African-Americans who cut their teeth on the civil rights movement. The social space opened by that movement has allowed many of these erstwhile activists to move into the middle class.
Spawned and perpetuated by noble intentions, the annual confabs are often corporate-sponsored reunions where well-heeled participants come to socialize and chart their relative affluence. While these soirées draw some of America’s most attractive and best-dressed black folks, the naked hucksterism on display is not a pretty sight.
On the other hand, they do provide unique opportunities to bring a public focus to African-Americans’ specific concerns. And, despite some conventioneers’ superficial preoccupations and the marketing lust of the corporate sponsors, useful information is usually available.
The territories of the four groups occasionally overlap, but disputes among them are rare. Some observers have speculated that President Bush has sought to spark a dispute between the NAACP and the NUL by snubbing the former and embracing the latter. As the eldest organization, the 94-year-old NAACP traditionally has been the first in line for all the symbolic perks. Bush ignored this tradition by withdrawing the biggest symbol of all — a presidential address — from the NAACP and accepting the NUL’s invitation to speak at its Pittsburgh convention.
Bush likely sought to send a message to the NAACP, whose CEO Kweisi Mfume and chairman Julian Bond have been critical of his administration. But Bush wasn’t alone in his dismissive treatment of the NAACP; three of the nine candidates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination had also planned to skip the group’s convention in Miami until harangued back into line by Mfume and Bond.
Seven of the nine Democratic candidates also traveled to the Pittsburgh convention of the NUL, which recently selected former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial as its new president, succeeding Hugh Price. Rainbow/PUSH’s 32nd annual convention in late June also pulled seven Democratic candidates; they no doubt were lured to Chicago by the continuing influence of PUSH’s president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The SCLC attracted no presidential candidates to its 45th annual convention in Memphis. Although co-founded in 1957 by civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and currently headed by his son Martin Luther King III, the SCLC has the lowest public profile of the civil rights quartet and is the least influential of the groups.
As their convention rhetoric reveals, all four groups have similar missions. The NAACP’s Mfume said it was “time to marshal our resources to stave off the insidious attacks on affirmative action in education, judicial activism on the Supreme Court, and an economy indifferent to the poor and middle class.”
The NUL’s Morial outlined a plan for what he called a new empowerment movement that will close the “the equality gap” in all aspects of American life. “The Urban League must offer solutions, ideas, and action,” Morial said. “We cannot simply be doctors who are long on diagnosis and short on prescriptions.”
At its convention, Rainbow/PUSH hosted a group from Benton Harbor, Michigan, the economically ravaged town that exploded into group violence earlier this summer. The organization sought to bring a focus to the needs of other communities that are similarly impoverished. Jackson’s oratory was predictably insightful and his prescriptions echoed those of Morial and Mfume.
Delegates at the SCLC Memphis convention took expected positions on issues of interest to black Americans. Their well-pedigreed president said the group is poised to attack the triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism. “We’re spending $4 billion a month occupying Iraq … so don’t tell me we can’t afford decent health care for the people of America,” King said.
Civil rights organizations are still searching for a unifying thread capable of binding progressive Americans into a common struggle for racial justice. Erstwhile allies now dispute strategies, like affirmative action, that once garnered wide support. In fact, increasing numbers of Americans are questioning the efficacy of such strategies and the relevance of the civil rights organizations that push them.
I’m not one of those Americans. While I am discomfited by the excesses and pretensions sometimes paraded at these summer conventions, I also treasure the opportunity to meet and exchange views with activists from other parts of the country and address issues usually ignored.
Civil rights organizations may be ideologically adrift and struggling for a lifeline that will keep them afloat in a new era. But until their replacements arrive, they are not irrelevant.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily “Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.