At low ebb, NAACP looks to its past

photo James R. Mapp speaks at Jubilee Day 2013, hosted by the Chattanooga Hamilton County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mapp is the incoming president of the organization.

In its heyday the local branch of the NAACP had more than 5,000 members. The national organization was heralded as the biggest, baddest, boldest civil rights group in the country.

Locally, NAACP efforts sparked public school integration, staged sit-ins that desegregated downtown businesses, helped change Chattanooga's form of city government and served as a public watchdog against racial discrimination in everything from prosecution of black crime suspects to newspaper cartoons.

But much of that took place a half-century ago.

Since then, membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- and, arguably, the Chattanooga organization's influence -- have fallen hard.

At one point in the early 2000s membership was barely 250.

Even now, having recovered somewhat, membership is so low that the group struggles to find leaders to fill its highest offices.

This branch, like many across the country, struggles to maintain relevance among a generation of blacks who know the civil rights movement only as a vestige of their past. Many people still reach out to the group with claims of discrimination in the workplace or schools. But even a large share of those seeking help aren't willing to pay the $30 annual dues.

Chattanooga and the local NAACP owe much to James Mapp. This firebrand inspired and fearlessly led the African-American community, sometimes even standing alone. Soft-spoken but stern, Mapp served as the group's president during the struggle and glory days of the 1950s and '60s all the way up to the 1990s.

And now Mapp, 85, is at the group's helm again, but only because no one else stepped up. He replaces Valoria Shipman Armstrong, 34, who resigned the presidency at the end of 2012 after serving for eight years.

"We couldn't find anybody to take it," Mapp said. "And we can't let [the NAACP] die out. There's too much of a need."

Already, he's steering the group back to the kinds of issues he cut his teeth on, when the NAACP had more bite.

Instead of what some members said has begun to resemble a social organization, Mapp said he wants the NAACP branch to return to a focus on battling issues of discrimination.

And he has put the public school system at the top of his to-do list. Mapp said he plans soon to involve federal officials to help combat what he believes is racial discrimination in Hamilton County Schools.


The telephone at the NAACP still rings 10 to 15 times some days with people complaining about discrimination on the job or about their children being unfairly suspended from school. But many of the callers aren't members. And when Mapp asks them about joining, he said, some get mad.

They expect the group's services, but few are willing to support it.

Older NAACP members suspect that younger generations of blacks are taking the civil rights struggle for granted. Men like Mapp fought decades ago to break open doors of opportunity and freedom. As a result, today's younger blacks were born into an era where many of those doors were wide open.

"The younger generation doesn't even know their own history, let alone the NAACP," said J.T. McDaniel, an NAACP member who owns several stores in East Chattanooga.

McDaniel said the black community needs to do a better job educating its youngest on the struggles of the past and the importance of keeping the fight alive today. Even he said he doesn't attend NAACP meetings as often as he should.

While the black community has achieved much progress, McDaniel said it still needs the NAACP in the journey to full equality.

"Things are not as they were 100 years ago, but it is still needed," he said. "Equality is not totally there as of yet."

Racism and discrimination now are more covert, said former NAACP Vice President Joe Rowe, who was set to take over as president of the local branch before becoming ill.

Rowe said blacks benefit less than any others when public dollars are used to recruit businesses to Chattanooga because they usually are not hired in living-wage positions. Education dollars are disproportionately spent in white suburbs, he said, and the educational system is failing black children.

The NAACP used to investigate and get more involved in these issues.

In schools 60 years ago, black teachers encouraged students to join the NAACP, Rowe said. But he suspects many elementary school students in 2013 haven't even heard of the group.

Black ministers used to be leaders in the group and helped promote it in the 1960s. But now, Chattanooga's NAACP leaders have started working to recruit them to join.

"The NAACP does not have the respected name that it had in the 1950s and 1960s when people began to see the success of the civil rights movement happening," Rowe said.

Floyd Kilpatrick, a past president of the civil rights organization Operation PUSH, said he let his NAACP membership expire in 2008. He believes people have grown frustrated because the group has been following mostly a national agenda, ignoring local issues.

"They go to meetings and find it's a great social outlet, a great place to vent frustrations," he said. "But when it comes time to act on the issues, we come up short."


Mapp is one of the most influential civil rights leaders in the area's history. And in taking over the NAACP, he'll fill a familiar seat.

In 1960, as a lone plaintiff, Mapp filed a federal lawsuit against Chattanooga's city schools. That suit kept the school system under the watch of the federal courts for 26 years -- the longest such case in the nation's history -- and eventually led to the desegregation of Chattanooga classrooms.

During times of racial turmoil, Mapp and his family endured hate calls, threats and even a bombing of their home.

Mapp has been an NAACP member since 1941, serving as president of Chattanooga's branch for more than two decades as well as chairman of the Southeast region and Tennessee chapters.

Some critics might call him a relic, too radical or unfair in his claims of racism.

"Some love me. Some hate me," he said.

But there's no questioning his influence.

Mapp has played a role in even the most recent NAACP battles. In 2010, he called on the federal government to investigate whether the Hamilton County Board of Education was allowing better facilities at predominantly white neighborhood schools than at black schools. He said he has written countless resolutions that have been passed by the national NAACP.

"You take most of the issues that came up, I was behind them," Mapp said.

But outgoing NAACP President Armstrong hopes she has left her own mark on the organization.

She said membership drives and concerted efforts to attract younger folks helped increase membership, which had sunk to as low as 250 when she took over eight years ago at age 26. Armstrong said the group now has about 400 members, though about half of its leadership positions are vacant.

That number is still less than 10 percent of the all-time high of more than 5,000 in the 1950s. Leaders said the group had about 1,500 members as late as the 1980s.

Armstrong said she tried in her eight years to appeal to younger community members.

The annual Ruby Hurley Image Awards moved from a formal dinner at the Chattanooga Choo Choo with a fiery civil rights speaker to an entertainment-based event at the Tivoli Theatre. That built fundraising revenue and attendance, Armstrong said.

"We changed the program up to where it catered to different individuals in the community so they could feel like it was something they could engage in," she said.

All the while, she said, the group has remained focused on issues of discrimination. Though there is no paid staff devoted to addressing problems, she said the group can educate and refer members to resources.

"I would say the NAACP is as strong as it was 100 years ago," Armstrong said.

Mapp is careful not to criticize. But he did say he believes declining membership might be attributed to a lack of focus on civil rights issues.

His first goal is to get more people to join the NAACP so the group can at least fill all leadership positions.

Beyond that, he plans a more active, issue-based branch. He wants to see more black voter registration and more blacks holding public jobs and offices. And he plans to be more involved in people's employment or educational concerns.

Together, blacks made great gains in Chattanooga. He believes that, together, they can do it again.

"If we get our act together we could determine a lot politically," Mapp said.