Op-ed column: President Obama galvanizes new young members of NAACP

Last week in New York City, our nation’s leading advocacy group for social justice, the National Ass

Last week in New York City, our nation’s leading advocacy group for social justice, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), celebrated its 100th anniversary. Founded in our state in 1909, the organization’s aim from inception has been simple, “to achieve social justice.”

It is known for its major civil rights victories for America’s black citizens, most notably the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, which won victories for black students in ending segregation in America’s public schools. Founded by W.E.B. DuBois and other social activists of the 1900s, the NAACP has long been America’s civil rights standard bearer and social justice conscience.

Locally, the NAACP has had victories in several discrimination cases over the years, fighting for legislative reapportionment and protesting acts of injustice. As detailed earlier this year by The Daily Gazette, once-active branches like Schenectady and others across the state and nation began to falter over time and sometimes become nonentities.

In response, the national and state organizations began reorganizing over the past several years and began reaching out to the nation’s next generation of young civil rights leaders for their service and stewardship to the NAACP for the next 100 years. The NAACP recently passed its national leadership torch to Benjamin Todd Jealous, 35, the former director of Amnesty International’s U.S. human rights program. As president and CEO, Jealous has embarked on the process of recruiting other people of color under age 50 to become involved, and redefine the NAACP and its mission in the 21st century.

Sign of times

It was never more apparent than last Thursday, when President Barack Obama, just 178 days into his administration, swaggered into the New York Hilton ballroom packed with a proud and excited audience of more than 3,000 guests.

“We need a new mind-set, a new set of attitudes — because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves,” said Obama in a 20-minute speech often interrupted by loud cheers and applause.

“Yes, you will face challenges that those in the wealthy suburbs do not, but that is not a reason to get bad grades, not a reason to cut class, not a reason to give up on education and drop out of school. Your destiny is in your hands — and don’t you forget that.”

His challenge to the NAACP and black America last week was to not accept excuses for our plight. As young African-Americans, our responsibility should not be to marvel at his accomplishments and message, but continue the struggle for justice and equality.

Valerie Brooks, 12, of Niskayuna was one of the young students who attended the black-tie dinner and was inspired to accomplish great things by Obama’s message. Accompanied by her mother, Helen, a Schenectady NAACP member and

FedEx government affairs representative, the future medical doctor was excited. “It was great being there and I loved seeing President Obama,” said the Iroquois Middle School seventh-grader and NAACP life member. “He makes me feel that anybody can do anything, no matter where you come from. You just have to believe.”

Sharp increase

Buoyed by Obama’s historic inauguration in January, the Schenectady Branch of the NAACP has seen a sharp recent increase in membership, especially among young professionals in the county. We now have more than 65 Schenectady leaders, activists and members in our ranks, including some who voted for the very first time in November.

“I was truly inspired to vote for the first time as an American citizen because of President Obama and his positive message,” recalled Schenectady resident Swinka Richards, 28, a Caribbean immigrant from St. Vincent, West Indies.

Richards, an MBA who works in the accounting department at New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), said that Obama’s message of hope has encouraged her and others to become involved. She recently joined the branch and, along with a dozen other county residents, attended a daylong NAACP training seminar to become local branch executive committee member.

“I admire him and truly believe in the things that he stands for,” she said. “I joined the NAACP to make a difference in the community because of him.”

Having a viable local branch of the NAACP available to advocate for fairness is critical in these economic times. Stiffer competition for a dwindling number of available jobs will mean that those often discriminated against, especially black males, immigrants and members of other groups, may be adversely affected in the job market.

Impact on jobs

The Daily Gazette pointed out recently that unemployment in Schenectady County has grown by some 56 percent in the past year, to 7.8 percent overall. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, 46.9 percent of those over age 25 living in the Hamilton Hill ZIP code of 12307 are currently not in the work force, many times greater than the county, state and national averages. The national recession will have even greater impact on the Hill and other similar communities of color, especially among those living there without a high school diploma (40 percent) and living below poverty (39.2 percent).

By educating the public, both in the community and business sectors, the NAACP can help to bring forth victories for discrimination-free employment, livable wages, affordable housing and access to a quality education for all children. A viable Schenectady NAACP is critical to fighting for justice for all Americans, and more importantly, being a voice and vehicle for the development of future leaders, community activists and, maybe, the next president.

Paul Webster lives in Niskayuna and is president of the Schenectady County Branch of the NAACP.

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