NAACP Finds New Life in Truth in Numbers

Black Press USA, Commentary, George E. Curry Posted: Jul 20, 2006

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A month before the end of his first year, Bruce Gordon has done something no other president or board chair of the National Association of Colored People has done in more than 50 years – he has told the truth about the organization’s anemic membership numbers.

When I began covering the NAACP in the early 1970s for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Executive Director Roy Wilkins and his successor, Benjamin L. Hooks, would boast that with 500,000 members, the NAACP was the oldest, largest and most powerful civil rights group in the world. But Hooks – and the chief executives that followed him – continued to lie about the size of the volunteer organization.

Finally, Gordon has acknowledged that the venerable organization has a membership of less than 300,000. He won’t say how many members shy of 300,000, but other NAACP sources say the figure has fluctuated between 150,000 and 250,000 over the past three decades.

The NAACP has had various membership drives over the years and for some reason, they expected the public to believe they had a half-million members. When they weren’t having membership drives, they were claiming 500,000 members. At the end of each drive, the figure reported to the public would still mysteriously remain at 500,000. The Baltimore Sun did some research and discovered that the NAACP has been claiming 500,000 members since 1946. For 60 years, it has been telling the same lie.

It wasn’t like top officials didn’t know the actual numbers. My friend DeWayne Wickham, who has been researching a book on the NAACP, came across a memo written by Benjamin Hooks stating that as of November 30, 1982, there were 178,000 members. Hooks made a report to the executive committee of the board on December 17, 1982 citing those figures. Hooks and Board Chair Margaret Bush Wilson clashed over a number of items, including the low membership numbers and some questionable fiscal practices.

While working in St. Louis, I broke the story in 1983 that she had suspended Hooks after a very heated board meeting at which Hooks had to be physically restrained. The board overturned Wilson’s action and later refused to re-elect her to the board. As leaders came and went, the membership lie remained a fixture. Some fear that by disclosing that the NAACP does not have the numbers it has claimed, the organization’s clout might be diminished. To the contrary, by having the courage to tell the truth, Gordon can build on his first year in office and embark on a membership drive that exceeds 500,000. In fact, by the time the NAACP celebrates its 100th birthday in 2009, Gordon hopes to have at least one million certified members on the rolls.

It is Black America, not the NAACP, that should be embarrassed that with a population of 38 million African-Americans, less than 300,000 are dues-paying members of the NAACP. Over the years, many African-Americans know that without the work of the NAACP, the official barriers of segregation and second-class citizenship would not have crumpled. And in local communities throughout the nation, when there is a police brutality case, often the victim’s first action is to contact his or her local NAACP chapter.

Al Sharpton was correct when he said that despite all the criticism leveled at today’s civil rights leaders, when there is a major issue in the Black community, those same civil rights organizations are our only source of dependable support. They, in turn, need and deserve our support.

Supporting the NAACP does not mean we can’t remain active in other arenas. I think one of the greatest challenges facing the civil rights movement is finding a way to integrate other Black professional groups into the leadership structure and relying on their area of expertise. Civil rights groups should be working in concert with the National Bar Association, for example, to address criminal justice issues.

The National Association of Black Journalists should be working with civil rights organizations to expose and challenge negative images of African-Americans on TV and boycotting sponsors of the lily-White Sunday morning talk shows. Financial literacy programs should be vetted with the Urban Financial Services Coalition, formerly known as the National Associationof Urban Bankers. In other words, let the experts in a particular area lead the way.

To their credit, Jesse Jackson, Bruce Gordon, Al Sharpton and National Urban League President Marc H. Morial have been working closely on major projects, such as returning displaced residents to New Orleans and pressuring Congress to renew key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They should now take that next step and systematically bring more Black organizations into the fold. If that happens, we will become an even more formidable force. And we would have done that by standing on the shoulders of the NAACP.

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