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Small wonder NAACP is struggling

June 07, 2008|By Jonathan R. Burrs

What is democracy? Is it government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or their elected agents under a free electoral system? Is it a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges? Is it the doctrine that the numerical majority of an organized group can make decisions binding on the whole group? Is it possible for an organized group advocating for democracy, equality of rights and privileges to survive in a democratic society and futilely practice the principles of democracy?

On May 17, Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, announced a decision that a new president and CEO had been chosen to lead the financially embattled civil rights organization. Benjamin Todd Jealous, Amnesty International's Director of U.S. Human Rights program, will, at 35, become the NAACP's youngest president.

Jealous will officially take the helm later this year and inherit years of organizational strife at a time when even the manner in which he was selected to lead the organization is questionable.

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Jealous was the lone person presented to the full board of directors to "vote" on. According to several sources, Bond began petitioning board members to support Jealous at least two weeks before the full board convened to decide who would be chosen as the new NAACP president. Several finalists were presented to the 17-member executive committee by the search committee.

The executive committee is headed by Bond and through a series of political maneuvers, Bond ensured Jealous was the only candidate presented to the full board.

A contentious vote of 34-21 confirmed Jealous as the board's choice, but left many board members divided on the issue of the full board not being given an opportunity to vote on other candidates. When the announcement was made, no one clapped or cheered, according to several sources.

Clearly, the manner of Jealous' ascension to the helm of the NAACP negates the most fundamental concept of democracy. It also presents several unresolved challenges concerning an apparent contradiction between past and present NAACP proclamations, versus the practices of the organization's leadership.

One familiar challenge is the NAACP's inability to attract and maintain Generation "X" members. According to Jealous, his youth enables him to attract such members. This theory, although applicable in concept, is susceptible to failure, based on several factors.

According to Dr. Michael Faulkner, an executive for the American Society of Association Executives and Center for Association Leadership, membership recruitment, retention and participation; volunteer management and fundraising are critical survival elements of voluntary organizations such as the NAACP.

Faulkner contends that major demographic shifts may force associations to radically alter their missions and financial strategies to meet the needs and demands of a whole new member population. Faulkner goes on to explain that when the needs of this core group of individuals are no longer being met, associations descend into obsolescence.

Faulkner's findings are consistent with membership trends of the NAACP and further highlight the lack of success past presidents have had in attracting and retaining new members.

Jealous claims he will face the same challenges with board members as his predecessor. He asserts his new post presents him with nothing he has not already seen before. But he will soon find out just how unique both the NAACP and the mile-long list of social and political problems of the organization truly are!

This includes balancing the organization's annual budget and either financing or raising all or part of the $20 million necessary to fulfill Bond's lifelong initiative to play a more significant role in federal politics by relocating the national headquarters to Washington, D.C.

Only time will determine whether Jealous succeeds or fails. But if the past is any measure, NAACP putting the same bad product in a new package could yield the same or similar results.

In my opinion, Generation X blacks are all too familiar with the propaganda, political grandstanding and empty proclamations made by the nave new president.

In fact, Julian Bond himself left us with this famous line: "They've had a collection of black hustlers and hucksters on their payrolls for more than 20 years, promoting them as a new generation of black leaders. Like ventriloquists' dummies, they speak in their puppet master's voice, but we can see his lips move and we can hear his money talk."

I ask Mr. Jealous not who is the puppet master, but instead, who is the ventriloquist's dummy?

Jonathan R. Burrs is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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