Graying NAACP rallying to recover from obstacles

11/6/2015, 7:24 a.m.
A session dedicated to the hot-button topic of police community relations at the 80th Annual Convention of the Virginia State ...
Cornell W. Brooks makes a point as the national NAACP president addresses a luncheon audience last Saturday during the 80th Annual Convention of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP in Downtown. Photo by Sandra Sellars

By Jack White

A session dedicated to the hot-button topic of police community relations at the 80th Annual Convention of the Virginia State Conference NAACP starkly illustrates the dilemma that confronts Linda Thomas, the newly elected president of the venerable civil rights organization.

On stage at last weekend’s conference in Richmond sat four high-ranking officials of law enforcement agencies in Richmond, Petersburg and Henrico County. In the audience were roughly 100 NAACP veterans from across the state, almost all in their 50s or older. Only a small handful were teenagers and people in their 20s, the age groups most likely to be caught up in a violent confrontation with police.

While the hourlong session was spirited and informative, there was little if any mention of Black Lives Matter, the movement that has electrified a new wave of activism among African-American and other youths across the nation. The sense of disconnection between the graying veterans attending the conference and the passionate protests of young people in the streets was almost palpable. In fact, the only significant mention of the youthful movement during the three-day convention came during a fiery address by TV commentator Roland Martin to the 300 people who attended the convention’s Freedom Fund Banquet on Saturday night.

The organization’s leaders are painfully aware of the generational divide and its troubling implications for the future of the NAACP.

“We don’t have the kind of soldiers, supporters and workers within the NAACP that we had 30 years ago,” said Jack Gravely, interim executive director of the state conference. “We have missed a generation of young folk by not bringing them in, training them and putting them in leadership positions.”

“There’s a void,” adds Mr. Gravely. “You need young legs, young ideas. You need young minds; you need the technology they bring. They would be a tremendous complement to those of us who’ve been out there for a few years. There’s no doubt about it.”

Ms. Thomas said, “We really need to find a way to connect with the 20-somethings and 30-somethings. Their focus needs to be our strategic focus.”

Officials said they wanted to include representatives of Black Lives Matter in the session but where unable to connect with them.

The need for youthful energy and social media savvy is all too evident. The state NAACP’s website is out of date and contains no information about the state convention. The latest posting on the organization’s Facebook page is dated March 23, 2010, more than five years ago.

Such technological snafus are among the reasons why many delegates complain about a lack of effective communication from the organization’s leadership to its rank and file. That problem became much worse, some delegates say, because of internal disarray that erupted after the former state executive director, King Salim Khalfani, was ousted by the board in early 2014 for reasons that have never been publicly explained. The organization went without an executive director until Mr. Gravely, the host of a lively Richmond radio talk show, agreed in April to serve for a year while a permanent replacement is recruited.