Shirley Johnson has the NAACP in her blood.
The woman who joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a youth is now responsible for nurturing the leadership skills of that age group for its Miami-Dade branch.
As the national civil rights organization celebrates its 100th year of existence, the organization is seeking to redefine itself, hoping to tap into the youthful exuberance that helped propel President Barack Obama to the nation’s highest office.
A multi-racial group of activists founded the NAACP in New York City on Feb. 12, 1909. The founders chose the date to coincide with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who is credited with freeing enslaved Africans in America.
The NAACP’s founding members were Ida Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Henry Moscowitz, Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villiard and William English Walling, according to the organization’s website, naacp.org.
Its civil rights accomplishments are second to none:
In 1939, after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred acclaimed soprano Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall, the NAACP moved her concert to the Lincoln Memorial, where more than 75,000 people attended.
In 1954, the NAACP won one of its greatest battles when, under the leadership of Special Counsel (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall, it won the Brown vs. Board of Education battle, leading to the desegregation of schools.
In 1955, NAACP member Rosa Parks was arrested and fined for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. That event is recognized as the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, members of the NAACP Youth Council launched a series of non-violent sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, leading more than 60 stores to officially desegregate their counters.
In 1963, the NAACP pushed for the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.
But today, critics of the NAACP claim it has had its day, and is no longer relevant – a complaint to which the national organization responded last spring by hiring a 35-year old to lead it.
In a May 2008 conference call with the black press, then president-elect Benjamin Jealous joined NAACP national chairman Julian Bond and Texas’ NAACP state conference branch president, Gary Bledsoe, to outline his intentions for invigorating the civil rights organization.
Bond wasted no time focusing on Jealous’ age and how it factors into the organization’s quest to lure younger members.
“His youth is a great asset to us. We believe that he will make the NAACP more attractive to the people of his age cohort,” Bond said.
Now 36, Jealous has a resume that lists the experience of a man twice his age. The former Rhodes Scholar was only the fourth person to serve as the president of the Rosenberg Foundation, a private independent immigration advocacy organization. He was also the director of the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesty International, served as the executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and was the managing editor of the Jackson Advocate, Mississippi’s oldest black newspaper.
In Miami, the local branch of the NAACP is headed by Bishop Victor T. Curry, senior pastor of the New Birth International Cathedral of Faith. Fort Lauderdale’s NAACP branch is led by Marsha Ellison.
All local Florida chapters are under the auspices of the state branch, led by Adora Obi Nweze.
Al Calloway, a South Florida Times columnist who is a former vice president of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP, is among those who question the organization’s effectiveness.
In a scathing December 2008 column, Calloway posed the following questions: Is the NAACP too old at 100? Has the organization lost its way? Are its leaders deaf, dumb and blind? Can the Obama period also be a stimulant to rejuvenate the NAACP, or is it just too late for the venerable civil rights organization?
Johnson, second vice president of the Miami-Dade branch, said the organization’s name indicates its relevancy.
“It’s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, not colored person,” said Johnson, whose father was close friends with Medgar Evers, the popular civil rights activist who was an NAACP field secretary before he was assassinated in the summer of 1963.
Today, local branches across the country are planning centennial celebrations. Johnson said people may call the local office or visit the website to learn more about activities scheduled in Miami-Dade. Nweze’s office said she would not be available for comment due to family illness. Efforts to reach Ellison, Fort Lauderdale’s branch president, were unsuccessful.
Several national celebrations are planned, with the biggest occurring at the 2009 NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles.
There, filmmaker Tyler Perry and actress Halle Berry will share co-hosting duties. Awards will be given to numerous artists in the entertainment and literary industry with special nods to former Vice President Al Gore, environmentalist Wangari Muta Maatha and Muhammad Ali.
Prior to the big bash, however, the NAACP will release an urgent white paper that issues a civil rights challenge to the new Congress and Administration for the first 100 days.
“Our journey remains unfinished,” Jealous, the national NAACP president, said. “African-Americans suffer disproportionately from the economic recession; we are seeing a rise in hate crimes and police killings, there is still not a level playing field in economic and educational opportunities for every community. The audacious dream of America, a land where opportunity exists for all and where every person is given a chance to reach their full potential, still remains elusive.”
The white paper will be released prior to the Image Awards celebration, which will be aired live from Los Angeles on Feb. 12.
Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan: Benjamin Jealous is the current president and chief executive officer of the NAACP.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Miami-Dade Branch NAACP
Fort Lauderdale NAACP
Florida State Conference NAACP