Has the National Action Network surpassed the NAACP in influence?
As Ben Jealous prepares to step down from his leadership post at the end of this year, there is no question that he brought stability and visibility in his five years as the president and CEO of the NAACP.
Now, as members and observers give Jealous a proper celebratory sendoff, they are also looking to the future of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. How is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, tackling 21st-century challenges and what is its relationship with other civil rights organizations?
There is still much work for the NAACP in a nation where, with its help, progress has been made but where inequality remains. Many issues look familiar. For example, at this year’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, voting rights and income inequality battles topped the agenda in 2013, as in 1963. However, some tactics and players had changed.
At the Aug. 24 “Realize the Dream” event the weekend before the official anniversary with President Obama in attendance, tens of thousands gathered on the National Mall to hear speeches by Jealous and others.
It was, however, the Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network (NAN) – a host alongside the NAACP and others – center stage at the Lincoln Memorial. Sharpton walked arm in arm during the march with U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia — a young SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) leader when he spoke in 1963 — and Martin Luther King III.
The two organizations with different histories have worked together on events. Both have weighed in on racial profiling, recently in the response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting.
In a Miami rally that was part of 100 NAN-led events across the country, Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin’s father, appeared with Bishop Victor Curry, president of the South Florida chapter of NAN and director of the southeast region. In the past, Curry served two stints heading the Miami-Dade NAACP, the last term ending about a year and a half ago, he told theGrio.
“I have nothing but respect for the NAACP,” Curry said, praising its longevity. “Being around over 100 years, that says a lot about the organization. But I think sometimes a discouraging aspect of working with an organization that has been around that long, sometimes it becomes top heavy.”
He said, “Before you can get things done in your local branch you go through so many different layers of leadership, and by the time you get approval from everybody the situation you’re dealing with on the ground has almost passed.”
“That was what was refreshing with me from Reverend Sharpton,” Curry said. “He gives his chapter presidents a lot of leeway to deal with what’s going on in their communities.”
In his first time as head of the Miami-Dade NAACP, Curry, who pastors two Baptist churches and is president, general manager and talk-show host at a radio station, said the national sent him a letter telling him to “cease and desist” his on-air criticism of the organization’s position — in the aftermath of a rash of police shootings — not to reconsider a decision to hold its convention in Miami Beach.
“We needed the NAACP to think about not coming,” he said. “Instead of them wanting me to discuss it they told me to shut up. I’m on the ground; I’m having to bury these young men. For the national to do that that kind of hurt me.” When the federal government subsequently indicted 11 police officers, Curry felt a measure of vindication.
National Action Network, founded in 1991, says in its mission statement that it “works within the spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote a modern civil rights agenda.” Curry said he favors that “preacher-friendly” tradition, “birthed out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
Curry said he spoke with longtime friend Sharpton about working together. Sharpton’s MSNBC show Politics Nation provides a Monday-to-Friday cable megaphone. Though NAN has chapters throughout the nation, its personality is tied to Sharpton, its founder, and his swift reaction to controversies.
“You don’t try to stifle that,” said Curry. “You ride the wave. You strengthen the organization so that when it’s time for these others chapters to fly, they can fly.” He said, “I believe NAN is strong enough and has enough strong chapter leaders.”