100 Years Old, NAACP Sees Resurgence of Youth Activism

The NAACP celebrates 100 years of service.

Posted: 07/17/2009 04:09 PM EDT

For 23-year-old Demar Lamont Roberts, the NAACP Centennial Convention is like celebrating the election of Barack Obama all over again.

So the recent South Carolina State grad is going all-out for the convention here, which started on Saturday and runs until July 16. He bought tickets to all the events, even the ones taking place at the same time. And he says he's planning to tweet from the minute he boards the plane until the convention is over.

"A lot of things I have never experienced before I'm about to experience — the camaraderie, seeing civil rights persons that have come before me and paved the way for me," said Roberts, of Memphis, Tenn., who serves on the NAACP National Youth Work Committee.

That kind of excitement from twenty-somethings like Roberts is just what the NAACP has been seeking — and now is seeing.

First founded a century ago as the National Negro Committee, today's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is sometimes regarded as an organization with graying members and obsolete ideas, out of step with new challenges facing the Black community. The average age of a member is between 50 and 55.

But as the nation's oldest civil rights organization celebrates its centennial, NAACP officials are reporting a resurgence of youth activism, even as it continues to field questions about its relevancy in the post-civil rights era.

Advanced registration numbers for the convention are a record 2,400, and the number of attendees under the age of 25 is "significantly higher" than it was last year, according to Stefanie Brown, who oversees the organization's Youth and College Division.

"I just see an increase in young people choosing to be active who want to interact with other young people who are like-minded," said Brown, 28. "Where else can you be a 15-year-old and meet someone else across the country who is also passionate about social justice issues?"

The convention doesn't come cheap. Roberts estimates he is spending more than $2,000 in graduation gift money on air, hotel, tickets, meals and entertainment.

Brendien Mitchell Jr., 15, of Ocala, Fla., said his local youth council, which has more than 100 members — not all are attending — had two Krispy Kreme Doughnuts sales and a chicken strips sale to raise money for the road trip. (The chicken didn't go over well; they made only $21). Many of them have been asking family for donations, he said.

The NAACP has been working hard to attract a new generation. The board elected then-35-year-old Benjamin Todd Jealous last year as president and CEO, the youngest person to hold the position. He's ramped up activism among the organization's 600 "youth units" ranging from elementary to college age with a campaign to increase college access and affordability.

It seems to be working: For the first time in five years, all seven seats on the 64-person board slotted for people under 25 have contested races, Brown said. The election is during the convention.

NAACP officials credit some increased excitement to the "Obama effect" — leftover energy from a presidential campaign that electrified young voters. The president is scheduled to address the convention on July 16. Gen. Colin Powell, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Rev. Al Sharpton are also expected to attend.

"It really is a carry-over from the momentum that the Obama candidacy sparked across the country in that age group, of wanting to be active and involved," said NAACP vice chair Roslyn Brock, 44.

Shayla King, 21, who is going into her senior year at Loyola University in Chicago, started an NAACP chapter on her campus and is on the national board. She said after the election, young people are fired up and ready to work on the issues.

"A lot of youth are seeing that it's their time to be leaders and have their voices heard," King said.

However, some are dubious that the election launched a new social movement. Ronald Walters, political scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, said many of the campaign volunteers were from middle-class backgrounds and were seeking positions in government or the private sector.

"You have to say, 'who is organizing, around what issues?'" said Walters. "I just don't see the people who came out of that campaign doing that."

The NAACP has 525,000 members — 250,000 paid and 275,000 Internet "e-associates" plus another 225,000 donors.  The organization's members always have included Whites, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans. Right now, its 1,200 branches span the breadth of this continent, and its members include White folks in southern Maine, Native Americans in Alabama, Americans of East Asian descent in the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, and of course, Black Americans throughout the country with ancestral links to the Caribbean, Central America, South America and Africa.  

"We are a very Black organization, but we are not a Black organization. There is a difference," Jealous said. "It's the difference between being able to play the black position on the field and being able to play any position," Jealous said. "We are from our origin a multiracial, multiethnic human rights organization."

The organization plans to use the convention to help the community mobilize. Youth workshops are scheduled that focus on becoming better community organizers. Brown said. And the organization is focusing on multigenerational issues such as racial disparities in education, the criminal justice system and HIV/AIDS.

Jealous said both young and old members share a sense of urgency and are eager to change the world.

"We have succeeded in many ways -- Obama and Holder are examples of that -- but we are very much focused on the work ahead," Jealous said yesterday at the convention's opening news conference, standing with the president of the LatinoJustice PRLDEF to show solidarity in their support for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

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