- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

It started, you could say, when Bill Cosby began standing strong and upbraiding black folk for speaking blenglish, wasting money on outrageously expensive sneakers and being more interested in bling-bling than reading, writing and arithmetic. Youngsters and young parents know more about the NCAA than the NAACP. Mr. Cosby, a general in the culture war, wants to turn that around. The options aren’t legion because old generals refuse to make way for new soldiers.

Consider the post-election developments at the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — two stalwart civil-rights institutions — and the shenanigans at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where the politically misanthropic Chairman Mary Frances Berry is on her way out the front door and couldn’t wait to take another cheap shot at the Bush administration. In an unofficial report — i.e., a report the entire board refused to endorse — Miss Berry says, “He,” meaning President Bush, “does not speak frequently about civil rights policies, and usually when he does, it is in reference to his,” that is, Mr. Bush’s, “faith-based initiative.” The report also claims the initiative “actually erodes” civil rights.

Of course, Mr. Bush’s faith-based initiative does nothing of that sort. Yet what really goaded me into again speaking out about such old generals (and the fact that we don’t seem prepared to anoint new ones) is that, just as the commission has lost its way, so it seems as well with the NAACP. Coincidentally or not, Kweisi Mfume announced this week that he is stepping down as CEO and president. In a sobering press conference, Mr. Mfume, a former Democratic congressman from Maryland, said he wants to spend more time with his teen-age son — the very group of young people Mr. Cosby said we had better pay closer attention to now, or risk more threatening consequences later.

Mr. Mfume deserves most of the credit for restoring fiscal integrity to the NAACP, which, when he stepped down from Capitol Hill nine years ago to sit at the mantel of the nation’s oldest civil-rights organization, was in dire straits. (Mfume predecessor Ben Chavis was accused of sexual improprieties, and the organization itself faced accusations of financial missteps.)

But, while Mr. Mfume worked hard to straighten the books and help the NAACP regain its unique stature, bitter and partisan rhetoric from the NAACP’s leadership spewed forth nonstop. (Small wonder the IRS has turned a microscope on the 501(c)(3) organization.)

There is another group that we need to look at, and that is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a once-effective political organization that Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and other ministers founded to combat Jim Crow. Rev. Shuttlesworth abruptly stepped down after the presidential election — but with two twists. Before he resigned, the SCLC board had placed the 82-year-old on suspension and police had to be called in this summer at the SCLC’s annual convention just to keep the peace. In an abomination of the SCLC, whose roots are in Christian ethos, the chairman of the board, Rev. Raleigh Trammel, used the “N” word in a memo when referring to Mr. Shuttlesworth.

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and Mr. Mfume have characterized two premier Bush appointees — Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell — as murderers and puppets, and branded Mr. Bush as a bigot who hides his sheets. Miss Berry meanwhile, said the president “seems to place no value on including civil-rights leaders in policy discussions.”

Well. Isn’t Condi Rice — who spent her formative years in “Bombingham,” lost a friend in the 1964 church blast that killed four little girls in Birmingham and now walks side-by-side with the president of the United States — a leader? Or can only Democrats be leaders?

Who is the president supposed to seek counsel from: Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, whose politics depend on who signs the check? Mary Frances Berry, who is so far left she’s even out of touch with Democratic centrists?

The NAACP was founded in 1910, the Commission on Civil Rights was created in 1957 (with huge Republican support, I might add) and the SCLC was founded in 1957. The NAACP’s crowning legal achievement was the 1954 school desegregation case, and the civil-rights commission did much to ensure black voting rights. Now, though, we must ask whether these once-venerable institutions are still needed. If the answer is yes, then their missions must be more narrowly defined.

We must keep something else in mind, too: We can’t put all our eggs in the senatorial basket held by Barack Obama; and it’s hard to teach old generals new tricks.

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