Rights groups still needed in America; NAACP membership surges this year

Rights groups still needed in America; NAACP membership surges this year

August 13th, 2013 in Opinion Times

It has seemed in recent years that for every step forward in racial equality, our country has also taken a step or two backward.

That felt truest in the past several weeks when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and when the Zimmerman trial verdict was read and jurors began to speak out later about justice not being simple.

Even before those things, testimony in a New York civil rights case about the city's stop-and-frisk policing tactics made for increasing concern about racial profiling. And on Monday, a federal judge found that the stop-and-frisk tactic violated the constitutional rights of minorities in the Empire State. She called for a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms.

"I also conclude that the city's highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner," Judge Shira A. Scheindlin wrote.

Sometimes the perfect storm of events -- in this case, the imperfect erosion of safeguards for equality and freedom -- leads to a stronger, grassroots reform.

The nearly moribund NAACP is rising again. People who had thought it was the organization of their mothers and grandfathers are taking another look.

As Times Free Press staff writer Yolanda Putman wrote Monday, membership and participation in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has spiked -- both locally and nationally.

Certainly in Chattanooga, the turnaround is notable: The nonprofit that touted itself as the biggest, baddest, boldest civil rights organization in the country had so little participation in its local branch that former President James Mapp had to take the head position again this year at age 85 because no one else wanted the job.

But then the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in June, intimating there now is no need for the oversight because Jim Crow is gone -- never mind that today there is more photo identification and residency red tape than ever required to vote.

Less than one month later, George Zimmerman was acquitted on charges of killing an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in July. If ever there has been evidence that there is no such thing as "post-racial" America, the din surrounding the Martin/Zimmerman case certainly proved it.

"The issues have heightened the community into action," Eric Atkins, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, told Putman. More people have joined the local NAACP in the past two months than have joined all year, he said, estimating that 25 people have joined since June. "The issues [voting rights and criminal justice] highlight the necessity and the relevancy of the NAACP. That's why we're seeing the renewed emphasis," Atkins said.

Nationally, more than 1.7 million people signed a petition on the NAACP website to ask the Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman, according to Eric Wingerter, the national NAACP's vice president for communications and new media. It's the largest number of signatures on a petition in the NAACP's 103-year history, he said.

Wingerter said thousands of people also joined the NAACP through online memberships since the Zimmerman verdict. He said the organization has about a half-million paid memberships, but added that about 2 million people participate when the NAACP calls for protest or community action.

Unfortunately, the NAACP is still needed. As are women's rights groups and other civil rights guardian groups. (Perhaps we even need a cyber rights guardian group now.)

As deep and strong and growing as this nation's diversity is, the thing that seems to be shrinking is peaceful compromise to ensure the equality of all of us.

If we need more rights groups to give voice to that, so be it.