The NAACP has grown partisan and radical. But is it partisan and radical enough?
It is not the case that our politics is more polarized today than at any time during our history. Anno Domini 2017 is a frustratingly stupid year, but it is not 1968 or 1857. It isn’t even 1909, when the NAACP was founded in response to a series of horrifying race riots and lynchings.
But there is more political distance between the important institutions of our civil society than there was a half-century ago, tumultuous though those times may have been. Consider that William F. Buckley Jr. served on the board of Amnesty International in the 1960s and 1970s. Conversely, Felix Frankfurter, quondam radical and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, became his generation’s great advocate of closely read constitutionalism and judicial restraint when he was named to the Supreme Court. Barry Goldwater will be remembered largely for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he also was among the founders of the Arizona chapter of the NAACP, a principal financier of the lawsuit that desegregated the Phoenix public schools, and an important ally of Arizona civil-rights leader Lincoln Ragsdale. That kind of political cross-pollination has become rare.
Case study: Amnesty International was founded after English lawyer and journalist Peter Benenson published a celebrated essay (later a book) in 1961 bringing attention to the situation of a number of political prisoners around the world. Among the cases Benenson highlighted were those of Ashton Jones, a Quaker preacher arrested for delivering anti-segregation sermons in the United States; the Castroite poet Agostinho Neto, who would go on to be the first president of an independent Angola; and Constantin Noica, a poet and philosopher sentenced to 25 years in the Gulag by the Soviet-backed Communist government of Romania. Supporting the release of political prisoners came naturally to anti-Communists such as Buckley: The Communists were, after all, the world’s most energetic and merciless jailers of dissidents. Amnesty was an anti-Communist program by its nature, but it also was a big tent: Benenson’s first working group consisted of three members of Parliament — one each from the Conservative, Liberal, and Labour parties.
Amnesty International achieved a measure of success: Noica was released after six years’ confinement, and Jones went on to be a tax protester abominating the Vietnam War. But Amnesty International also suffered from mission creep — the endless campaign for fresh urgency — and in 1977 it published the “Declaration of Stockholm,” which had nothing to do with political prisoners but was instead focused on the prohibition of capital punishment. Buckley resigned from the board, predicting — accurately — “the inevitable sectarianization of the amnesty movement.”
The NAACP, a much older and more consequential organization, has followed a similar course: Its founders included W. E. B. Du Bois, whose rhetorical fustian (see the faux Old Testament stylings of “A Litany of Atlanta”) complemented the quieter work of men such as Moorfield Storey, an old-fashioned New England Puritan and Harvard-trained lawyer who had served as secretary to Radical Republican Charles Sumner before turning mugwump. The early NAACP had very little trouble joining in common cause such politically estranged leaders as founding members Mary White Ovington, a socialist-feminist writer, and John E. Milholland, who remained a committed Republican even as many of his fellow civil-rights activists abandoned the party as being too corrupt and complacent to be an effective agent of justice.
The NAACP was for a time closely aligned with the Republican party, as indeed was much of the civil-rights movement as a whole. In fact, Du Bois had spent much of the three years preceding the NAACP’s founding arguing that African Americans should rethink what was at the time their almost unanimous support of the GOP, asserting that the Roosevelt-Taft faction had mostly given up on the cause of black Americans and was taking them for granted. He was not entirely wrong about that: The Republican party was — and is — in a state of eternal conflict between the Party of Lincoln and the Party of the Chamber of Commerce, between its classical liberalism and its instinctive, businessman’s conservatism.
The great tragedy of Republican racial politics is that the party repeatedly and prematurely has declared, since approximately the time of the passage of the 13th Amendment, that the work begun by Abraham Lincoln has been concluded. The GOP has long sought a kind of natural stopping point for racial politics: emancipation, Reconstruction, Brown and school desegregation, various pieces of civil-rights legislation up to and including the 1964 act, etc. Republicans want to be able to say that “the Party of Lincoln has done its work” and go back to their happy place, cutting taxes and railing against the inefficiency of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
The Republican desire to be done with black politics per se of course created an opportunity for the Democrats, one that the party figured out how to harness long before the civil-rights battle of 1964. If Teddy Roosevelt Republicans were not offering African Americans very much, Franklin Roosevelt Democrats certainly were, and no Republican presidential candidate has won the black vote since Herbert Hoover. Black Americans (the ones who were able to actually vote) were in their majority Democratic voters from the election of 1946 onward. One of the great misunderstood episodes of American politics is the migration of black voters to the Democratic party: Lyndon Johnson did not attract them with civil-rights legislation — he recognized that the Democratic party already was by the time of his presidency the preferred party of African Americans.
The institutional conservatism of the NAACP prevented the organization’s being wholly subordinated to the political necessities of the Democratic party for about 20 years. But as black politics became increasingly identified with urban, big-government patronage politics — and as the Republican party came to rely more heavily on racially charged law-and-order politics and culture-war crusades against affirmative action and the like — the NAACP became more and more a kind of Democratic subcommittee. Financial mismanagement and terrible leadership — Kweisi Mfume, Benjamin Chavis — left the NAACP organizationally weak, but the hyperpartisan antics of leaders such as Julian Bond kept it in the good graces of its friends in elected office. After Bond declared Republicans to be representatives of “the dark underside of American culture,” rejecting racial equality and democracy itself, George W. Bush became the first president since Warren G. Harding to forgo addressing the organization’s national convention.
There is a general sense that the NAACP is less important to the national political conversation than it was only a few years ago. In May, it fired its president, Cornell William Brooks, and announced a general reorientation toward opposition to the Trump administration. Melissa Harris-Perry, writing in the New York Times, urged the NAACP to adopt a more radical stance, something more like the position of Black Lives Matter, something harkening back to the violent confrontations of the 1960s: “If the NAACP is unprepared for emeritus status, it must be ready for a return to the bloody years,” she wrote. “It must become radical and expect a time when people will be mocked and potentially even harmed simply for being aligned with it.” She argued, as many have, that the NAACP should broaden its outlook to incorporate a wider social-justice agenda: “Is the NAACP ready to follow the leadership of undocumented women? Queer women? Black women? Is it ready to listen to those who have been incarcerated? Those who are HIV positive? Is it ready to have as its president a young person just out of foster care who, because he is transgender and black, lived with vulnerabilities many can’t imagine?”
That is obviously dopey: Perhaps that “young person just out of foster care” ought to get some work experience before going to work as president of one of the nation’s most important organizations. But the prestige of organizations such as the NAACP and the urgency that is — still — associated with the politics of race in the United States are hard to resist for social-justice entrepreneurs and other spotlight-chasers. When the Trump administration announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the usual protesters were ready: Climate Change Is a Racial-Justice Issue, came the slogan. (“Since when?” asked one young critic. “The ozone layer never called me a n*****.”) But even though we find ourselves debating about public restrooms, the situation of transgender Americans is not very much like the situation of African Americans in 1944 — or 1977, for that matter.
One wonders whether Professor Harris-Perry has had a look at the political realities on the ground lately: Those vast swathes of red on the presidential-election map may exaggerate the Republican ascendency, but the fact is that the GOP is in its strongest position since before the New Deal. There are more than twice as many Republican governors today as Democratic governors (33 to 16). Outside of four states — Louisiana, Colorado, Minnesota, and Montana — you won’t find a Democratic governor between the coasts. Republicans control 32 state legislatures, 17 of them with veto-proof majorities. Democrats control only 13, with five states divided.
If the NAACP wants to be one minor voice in a national campaign for the recognition of 63 genders, then it should follow Professor Harris-Perry’s advice. If it wants to reform law-enforcement practices in cities such as Ferguson, Mo., improve the public schools in Georgia, or open up the housing market in Illinois, then the NAACP needs to be talking to Republicans, which will be harder to do the more radical it becomes. The NAACP is going to have to decide whether its mission remains the advancement of African Americans or has become the advancement of boutique radicalism of the sort that mesmerizes Professor Harris-Perry and MSNBC’s audience. If the NAACP decides to renew its commitment to its founding principles, then Republicans should think about renewing theirs as well and make themselves available as genuine partners.
The NAACP was better off when it was open to Republicans. So were Republicans.