MAXWELL:  Finally, the NAACP allows the question

7/13/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Tradition and conformity always have been the heart and soul of the NAACP. Founded in 1908 by W. E. B. Du Bois to combat discrimination in education, housing, voting and employment, the organization has always had racial integration as its raison d’etre.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People enjoyed what many still believe is its greatest-ever triumph in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed separate-but-equal public school facilities in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.

And in 1971, when the court ruled in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that “forced busing” could be used to achieve racial balance in public schools, the NAACP believed that it had captured the perfect tactic for bringing the races together and raising the quality of learning for African-Americans.

Until then, black children had been victims of de jure and de facto segregation, hand-me-down books, limited budgets and materials and resources and, of course, second-rate buildings.

Now, however, many of the NAACP national board members, state and local directors and rank-and-file members attending this week’s national convention, which began Friday and ends Thursday, say that integration, both as a political tactic and as a social philosophy, is bankrupt. The seeds of black nationalism, with separation of the races at its core, have found deep roots among blacks nationwide.

For the first time in more than a decade, the nation’s best-known civil rights organization is seriously debating whether it should continue to pursue the integration of public schools or redirect its efforts into improving the schools that the bulk of black children attend because of where they live.

Many black leaders believe that to abandon integration is to hoist the white flag, to acquiesce to white racists and black extremists who believed all along that blacks and whites cannot live together amicably.

To her credit, National Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams said that she will let an honest debate take place and will consider a resolution to reverse the board’s traditional stance on integration. President Kweisi Mfume, a former U.S. congressman, downplayed the boldness of those comments, saying the NAACP remains committed to school integration.

Shortly after replacing Benjamin Chavis as president nearly two years ago, Mfume outlined his position on an integrated society: “We can’t let ourselves be isolated from the real world. If we’re separated, we can’t survive. I understand the lure of separatism. When people are ticked off, they dig in. They pull away from each other. They make generalizations about this group or that group which aren’t true. . . . Separatism doesn’t have a functional reality in our pluralistic world.”

But other blacks, especially big city mayors and parents whose children carry the real burden of busing, clearly are disillusioned. Even though many believe that interaction between the races is healthy, they support a return to all-black schools. Like their white counterparts, black parents want the best education for their children.

They have seen white flight and economic shifts make the public schools their children attend blacker than ever. And many now grudgingly agree with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who said: “It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior.”

Just a few months ago, NAACP officials who held such a position, such as Robert Robinson, president of a New Jersey branch, and Kenneth Jenkins, president of the Yonkers, N.Y., branch, were fired.

But thanks to a series of hostile court decisions and an anti-affirmative action groundswell that seems to be gaining steam, the group has agreed to publicly listen to new ideas for the first time in decades.

No matter how this debate turns out, it, more than anything else, indicates that the NAACP is maturing, that the organization is willing to look inward and re-evaluate its commitment to integration, the institution’s most venerable principle.

Again, many here in Pittsburgh worry that the NAACP is surrendering to the forces of separatism on both sides. Perhaps when they leave on Thursday, after the disparate voices have been heard, many of these dedicated workers for equity will have discovered that honest uncertainty often is a sign of strength and not capitulation.

The comments of NAACP board member, television personality and former Georgia state Rep. Julian Bond best symbolize the complexity of this ongoing dialogue:

“Generally among black Americans, there is a feeling that (school integration) has come to naught, that so much energy has been put into it without commensurate results and that white America has been so resistant that you’re butting your head against the wall. I think that it’s a wrong attitude, but it’s an understandable attitude.”

Meanwhile, the debate _ a necessary one for African-Americans _ rages here in Pittsburgh. Because it is happening at all, the rest of the nation has reason to be hopeful.