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Pan African Film Festival

Cynthia E. Griffin- | 2/11/2009, 5 p.m.

In a day and age when Barack Obama can be elected president of a country that a mere 200 years ago held people who looked like him in physical bondage; where laws that prevented Whites and Blacks from going to school and socializing together 50 years ago have been struck down, the relevance of an organization like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is sometimes questioned.

But newly appointed NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer, Benjamin T. Jealous, has the answer to that question.

" . . . our branches are triage rooms for communities in crisis with the job market, the criminal justice system and with local schools. And at the end of the day, the NAACP is a very Black organization. But it's not a Black organization; We're a human rights organization rooted in the Black community fighting for everybody who is dealing with the same struggles or concerned about the same struggle that we're dealing with."

That broader viewpoint is part of a rebuilding strategy that Jealous, a 35-year-old human rights activist and newspaper editor, selected last August to head the organization, is bringing to the NAACP.

The rebuilding is both a practical and philosophical process that involves boosting a national headquarters staff that had been cut in half just before his arrival to work with the 1,500 most active chapters in the country to get them to change their way of doing business.

". . . the place we're trying to get to is to help these local NAACP chapters, that have become triage rooms for communities in crises, switch from reactive all the time to proactive most of the time; from being behind the problems to getting out in front of the problem; from not being able to solve the problem to solving the problem and moving on to the next one.

"We're going to change the culture of the movement. We're going to get it focused on the problems of today, and we're going to equip our activists with solutions at the local level as well as mobilizing at the national level. We're going to push young people back to the forefront of the movement by focusing on issues," said the new president.

Like many great organizations, the NAACP was born 100 years ago in response to a need. In this case, it was the race riots in the "Land of Lincoln," Springfield, IL during the summer of 1908, where numerous atrocities were committed against African American men, women and children.

The rampaging by some of the town's "best citizens" raged for two days. At the end of that time, the official death total was reported to be seven--two Blacks and five accidental Whites.
However, it was rumored that there were many more deaths as a result of the riot.

Property damage was in excess of $200,000--40 homes were destroyed and others were damaged while 24 businesses were forced to close their doors either temporarily or permanently.

The carnage convinced a number of prominent Caucasians that it was time to take a very public stance in support of the rights of African Americans, and they began meeting with like-minded individuals as well as noted Blacks like W.E.B. Dubois and Ida B. Wells Barnett.