With 80 percent of its members older than 35, group courts younger people
HOUSTON — At the NAACP convention’s youth banquet, college students snapped photos of a special guest, rapper Reverend Run of Run-DMC. Later, a young woman delivered a fiery spoken word performance about a racial epithet.
The next day, the convention returned to its regular session and the mood moved from hip-hop to gospel. People at the meeting clapped and nodded their heads to songs by a Baptist choir.
The two events at the meeting, which ended Thursday, said something about the roots of the 93-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and where it may be going. About 80 percent of the venerable civil rights group’s 500,000 members are over the age of 35, and it’s looking to reach out to a younger generation.
“When you ask people ’What is the NAACP?’ there’s a segment of the community that is so unfamiliar with hearing those five letters, they confuse it with everything, including the NCAA,” said Jeffrey Johnson, the 29-year-old national director of the NAACP’s youth and college division.
“It’s a challenge for us as an organization to address issues that are relevant to young people.”
In his new book, “The Hip Hop Generation,” Bakari Kitwana says the NAACP is “often out of synch with the hip-hop generation.”
“Right now, for most young people, they’re not relevant,” said Kitwana, 35. “They see them as an outdated group, not so much because of what they stand for, but because what makes them a significant group are not things that have happened in our lifetime.”
Kitwana defines the hip-hop generation as those born between 1965 and 1984, who have grown up in post-civil rights America.
“Voting rights, affirmative action, the rise of black elected officials and social programs benefitting the poor have all been part of life as we know it,” Kitwana says in his book.
Indebted to civil rights and black power movements, “our generation’s lack of a mass political movement has also influenced our activism.”
Johnson said the NAACP is grooming a new generation of leaders through its youth and college division. Its more than 600 youth councils and college chapters are “walking billboards for the NAACP,” he said.
“The community programs they’re involved in, and even just their example, serves as a solicitation to other young people.”
He also points to leaders like 29-year-old education director John Jackson, 36-year-old member director Roger Vann and 36-year-old vice chairwoman Roslyn Brock as proof the NAACP is moving younger people into positions of power.
College student Ebony Moore became a member of NAACP seven years ago, after entering the group’s Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympic competition in poetry, oratory and essay writing.
Since then, she’s helped organize marches supporting affirmative action, and is concerned about issues such as police brutality.
“We are still the biggest and baddest civil rights organization ever,” said Moore, a 19-year-old student at the University of Cincinnati.
There’s also the hip-hop connection. It’s a sign of the NAACP’s attempt to attract other young people “we have not engaged in the past,” Johnson said.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume sits on the board of the hip-hop Summit Action Network, a group of rap stars, record company executives and civil rights and community organizations working to mobilize rap fans to political action.
The NAACP is working with the network on a “rap the vote” registration and education effort.
Reverend Run’s appearance — with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons — is another sign “there is a partnership between this civil rights organization that has stood the test of time and the largest hip-hop institution,” Johnson said.
In Los Angeles, Derrick Carolina and Jahmal Durham, members of the rap group The B.L.A.C.K Experience, have joined an activist organization called the Hip Hop Congress.
Carolina, who is in his 20s, calls the NAACP a “prestigious organization that has a long-standing good reputation in the black community.”
Despite that, Carolina, also known as Lyrix, said there is a “generation gap in between what the black hip-hop youth are doing, and are all about, versus the NAACP. They don’t have any ears to the street.”
But Moore, whose spoken word piece encouraged youth at the NAACP dinner to act out against discrimination, said she is ready to one day join a new generation of leaders at the NAACP.
“In a little while, Kweisi and Julian won’t be there,” said Moore, referring to Mfume and board chairman Julian Bond. “We’ll have to step into their positions.”