- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

The bookends of the NAACP’s century testify to the change it has wrought.

In 1908, a race riot in Springfield, Ill., left at least seven people dead and led to the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first black president-elect.

In between, wielding legal arguments and moral suasion in equal measure, the NAACP demanded that America provide liberty and justice for all. Now, its very achievements have created a daunting modern challenge as the NAACP turns 100 on Thursday: Convincing people that the struggle continues.

“When I was in college, I could see signs that said ‘white’ and ‘colored’ when I went to the movie theater. That was an easy target for me to aim at,” said Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board. “Today, I don’t see those signs, but I know that these divisions still exist, and it’s more difficult to convince people that there’s a problem.”

Benjamin Todd Jealous, the new president and CEO of the NAACP, said his greatest obstacle is “the lack of outrage about the ways that young people and working people are routinely mistreated.”

He cites figures such as a 70 percent unsolved murder rate in some black communities, blacks graduating from high school at a far lower rate than whites, and studies showing that whites with criminal records get jobs easier than blacks with clean histories.

“There are issues of basic fairness, obstacles to opportunity, that still exist,” he said. “The NAACP is needed now as urgently as it has ever been.”

No one group did more to pave the way for Mr. Obama’s ascension than the NAACP, historians say, pointing to its primary role in three towering civil rights victories - the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But now that a black man has become president, a new era has clearly begun. “We’ve got to rise to the occasion today,” said former NAACP Board Chairman Myrlie Evers-Williams, who was married to the slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers.

“We cannot continue to sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ” she said “It’s a dear, valued, valuable song that expresses a time that should live with us. But I want a new song.”

The first incarnation of the NAACP was the Niagara Movement, a 1905 conference of prominent blacks led by the scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois. After the Springfield riots, Niagara members joined a group of mostly white Northerners to form the NAACP on Feb. 12, 1909, the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

In 1917, the NAACP won its first Supreme Court case, a unanimous ruling that states could not segregate people into residential districts based on race.

“We are the only country that was founded on an idea or a premise - the notion of equal citizenship,” said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights movement.

Power also came from thousands of average citizens who risked retaliation to challenge unjust laws. Those legal victories laid a foundation for many different groups to demand equal protection under the law.

The great triumphs of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts marked the end of an era. After the 1960s, some of the NAACP’s most significant achievements, according to a timeline on the NAACP Web site, include helping keep conservative Robert Bork off the Supreme Court and former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke out of the U.S. Senate.

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