A Tale of Two Movements.
To reach the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in northwest Baltimore, you turn onto Ben L. Hooks Drive, park in the lot outside the Benjamin L. Hooks building and walk past Mary White Ovington Court. Behind the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, under a stand of tall white pines, there is a bronze plaque (you don't know this at first; it lies buried under drifts of reddish needles) that marks the final resting place of Dorothy Parker's earthly remains.
Before her death in 1967, Parker had willed her estate to Martin Luther King Jr. and, in case he died, to the NAACP--so if you want to say "You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think" in print, permission may be given by the NAACP. Parker's ashes, after sitting for two decades in a filing cabinet in her New York lawyer's office, were transported to Baltimore for burial in 1988. Two years earlier, the NAACP itself, after eight decades in Manhattan, had moved to this five-story brick and slate structure--formerly a cloister of Trappist nuns. Dorothy Parker will spend eternity in a convent.
"To the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people," the plaque reads. Also: "Excuse my dust." The NAACP's archivist, busy cataloguing boxes of papers from the Mississippi field office of the early sixties, said that he's spotted her ghost walking the grounds.
History lies heavy on the NAACP.
From its glory years there is a famous picture of President Kennedy, all smiles in the afterglow of the March on Washington, standing with the leaders of the "Big Five" civil rights organizations. Where are they now?
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which led the desegregation battle in Alabama, last year made Martin Luther King III its president, trying to revive a moribund group through its founder's name. Meanwhile, the founder's family has dedicated its energies to licensing his legacy and forming alliances with Time Warner and, until his death, James Earl Ray.
The Congress of Racial Equality, which staged the Freedom Rides across the South, has under the leadership of Roy Innis lent its support to expanded gun ownership among black Americans and to the authoritarian government of the late Gen. Sani Abacha in Nigeria.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, no longer exists--"except," Julian Bond recently told me, "when it gathers for birthdays and funerals," as he was to do that night for James Forman's 75th.
The National Urban League continues in its quiet way what it has been doing for most of the century: helping black individuals and businesses acquire greater economic power.
Which leaves the NAACP, ninety years old next year. Before the civil rights movement it was the country's leading civil rights group, and arguably it is once again. The story of its fall and recovery in this decade confirms that the movement has reverted to organizational status, which raises an interesting question: If civil rights is no longer a movement, has another taken its place?
Four years ago the NAACP had a near-death experience: a $4 million debt, financial corruption, sexual scandal, infighting, irrelevance. Then Kweisi Mfume surprised Washington by leaving a safe and powerful seat in Congress to take over as president and CEO. By all accounts he has done a magnificent job of eliminating all the problems, except irrelevance.
"The organization had gotten comfortable," Mfume told me in his office, "fat and lazy, living off a history long since removed." Slender and elegant in a dark suit and monogrammed shirt, he seemed less intense than in public--but when I asked him why he took the job, why it mattered whether the NAACP survived, why it couldn't declare victory and retire from the field, Mfume answered with passion.
"I don't think it's fair to all those people, nameless and faceless, dead and gone, many of whom could not speak the King's English, didn't have a degree, but who loved the organization sometimes more than they loved themselves."
Julian Bond, who replaced Myrlie Evers-Williams this year as chairman of the board, gave me a more ideological and provocative answer: "White supremacy. We think it ever-present, powerful, strong, pervasive, and we're going to fight it."
I suggested, only half-facetiously, that for the organization to matter in the future as much as it has in the past, it ought to become the National Association for the Advancement of Justice--that race bias might be an original cause of income disparity, lack of health insurance and inferior education, but no longer provides a convincing rationale or strategy for ending them.
Bond didn't completely disagree, but he said, "In some ways I'm trying to narrow our focus, saying, `Show me the race angle here. I want that race angle as an entry point.'" On abortion, for example, the NAACP takes no position. "For all purposes, we don't care--do it, don't do it. But we are vitally interested, where abortion is legal, that black women have access."
What both Mfume and Bond want is to return the NAACP to its original mission: advocacy for equal rights and against discrimination. This means that the balance between the organization's advocacy work and its service work, which had been 25 percent/75 percent when Mfume arrived, is being reversed. The NAACP won't abandon loans for small businesses, scholarships and stay-in-school and antidrug efforts--but it will allow other organizations to do most of the work. At this year's convention Mfume and Bond put defense of affirmative action at the top of the agenda, and the NAACP poured money and time into defeating Washington State's Initiative 200, without success.
The arguments of the new leadership make sense within the tradition and capacity of the NAACP: Get back to what you do best, don't try to be all things to all people. And yet the question of its relevance remains unanswered. The deterioration of the major civil rights organizations wasn't just personal or institutional--wasn't, in a sense, an accident. What purpose did the NAACP continue to serve in the aftermath of the civil rights revolution, amid the rapid growth of a black professional class and the equally dramatic decay of the lives of those left behind in the cities? In the absence of a compelling answer, stagnation, nostalgia and corruption were bound to set in, and they did.
The crisis was historical and philosophical. Civil rights groups became prisoners of their own success, whipsawed between history and change. When the NAACP tried last year to debate the very real dilemma of pressing for school desegregation versus improving black schools, it was attacked for abandoning its historical commitment to integration. The debate was stifled before it began--and the NAACP was savaged for being a dinosaur. The burden of its honorable past kept the group from discussing one of the crucial questions facing black Americans.
The NAACP's vitality is intimately tied to attracting young people, and Mfume told me that there are now 67,000 youth members in 120 college chapters and 450 youth councils--"the quietest-kept secret in the NAACP." But the return to militant civil rights advocacy means that the field of operation will be marginal, and the risk of disproportionality chronic: protesting Webster's definition of "nigger," for example, or downplaying encouraging numbers on black economic progress. And it means that the NAACP will remain absent from the Mississippis and Alabamas of our time, the city streets hardest pressed by violence and drugs and poverty.
This problem was vividly raised in my conversation with Mfume. Last month, he and other staffers were arrested outside the Supreme Court in a protest against the dearth of minority law clerks. I asked how this issue could be made meaningful to large numbers of young blacks, especially those who were not in line to become Supreme Court clerks themselves. His answer was revealing.
A couple of weeks earlier, he had visited a Pennsylvania halfway house to speak with ex-con youths. He told them about a Chicago antigang ordinance before the Supreme Court that would make it illegal for small groups to loiter on the street. "We're opposed to it," Mfume told me, "not because we love gangs but because we believe in freedom of assembly. And so when I talk to the hip-hoppers about this getting ready potentially to eliminate their ability even to stand on a comer together--they never really connected it back to the Supreme Court or that you could do anything with the Supreme Court, or that law clerks were even important. So it's a way of defining it. I'm not saying that it's going to work--it's hard to make this connection, believe me. But I think if you don't make it relevant in the lives of people, you've lost automatically, because nobody will understand it."
Mfume was once a street hustler himself, a numbers runner in West Baltimore in the mid-sixties. The early chapters of his fine autobiography, No Free Ride, read a bit like Malcolm X's. When I suggested that black kids in trouble might be the NAACP's toughest audience, a smile broke across his face. "They're the easiest audience for me to reach. I connect with them, they connect with me, and I meet them where they are."
If anyone in America can make juvenile criminals in a halfway house grasp the importance of minority hiring at the Supreme Court, Kweisi Mfume can. But it's hardly the most direct way for the NAACP to reach the next generation; in fact, it points up the organization's continuing quandary. Even defending affirmative action makes the NAACP more like the black Planned Parenthood or B'nai B'rith than the leader of an important social movement with a claim on the nation's conscience. Perhaps the NAACP won't ever be in that position again. Perhaps we shouldn't ask it for inspiration but instead accept its scaled-down status as one more interest group--a sure sign of success in US politics.
"If this narrowing of focus means that we're going to miss some things," Bond said, "then I'm sorry about it but I think it's unavoidable." The work on drugs and gangs and early despair, he said, would have to fall to other groups.
Which brings up the question of another movement.
Eugene Rivers was once a gang member like Kweisi Mfume, during the same years, eighty miles north in Philadelphia. In 1970, age 20, after listening while a roomful of "brothers" planned to kidnap Mayor Frank Rizzo and exchange him for Angela Davis, Rivers pointed out that the idea was crazy. I asked him why he hadn't fallen under the spell of the time.
"The black Pentecostal church. Doc, you have no idea how deep this goes--the common sense that came to me out of the black church. You're going to start a fight with Uncle Sam with a cap gun!"
Loosely speaking, it's just the sort of thing he's done. Eugene Rivers--Reverend Rivers, son of a Christian mother and Muslim father, Harvard dropout, omnivorous reader, careless dresser, self-confessed "loudmouth" and deadly serious founder with other black Harvard refugees of the tiny Azusa Christian Community in the most dangerous neighborhood in Boston--has an idea. "The major problems confronting black people have nothing to do significantly with white people," he told me. "White people are not black people's problem. Ultimately, black people are black people's problem." And in the face of this problem, "the church is the last best hope black people have."
It might all be talk--hyperkinetic, bluff, self-pleased, dashed with the Frankfurt School and profanity. But Rivers has made good on his talk by spending the past decade in Four Comers, Dorchester--working out of a bowfront clapboard Victorian, a former crackhouse turned Christian settlement named after the godmother of SNCC, the Ella J. Baker House--trying to keep kids from killing one another. He started with street confrontations that got his house shot at by local drug dealers. When gang killings reached an all-time high in the early nineties, Rivers and other black clergy formed the 10-Point Coalition and entered a partnership with police, with whom there had been a history of mutual suspicion. The cops would take the hard-core young criminals off the streets and let the ministers work with the ones who could still be saved; the ministers, in turn, would provide street intelligence to the police. The arrangement demanded sophisticated judgment and restraint on both sides, and until October 1997 Boston had gone two and a half years without a juvenile murder.
All the while, a couple of miles away, the NAACP office peeled and rotted like a barbecue joint cited by the health department, until there was nothing left but a sign.
Whenever I spent time at Ella Baker House, I would find myself deep in conversation about the history of black nationalism or the philosophical basis for liberalism with Rivers and members of the twelve-person staff, while local kids trooped in for after-school tutoring and youth workers conferred with gang-squad cops and hooded teenagers out on the sidewalk. The atmosphere put me in mind of Jane Addams and the settlement-house movement of the late nineteenth century: the feverish air of crusade, the middle-class seriousness, the ethic of closeness to the street, the fourteen-hour days, the intense bond of a small band.
For Rivers, discipline is everything, and it depends on faith. "My thing is, you need God over the long haul or you ain't gonna make it," he said. "You've got liberals suffering from compassion fatigue because they're exhausted. You ain't got Jesus, you ain't getting up at 6 in the morning." He looked at me pointedly, though not accusingly. At Ella Baker House I was always thinking about what time I'd gotten up that morning.
There were very simple bona fides to the work: Walk the walk. "The reason a white group hasn't come in and co-opted this place," one staffer told me, "is that they don't really want to put a body on an at-risk kid. It's tough, it's hard on me sometimes--these kids are crazy, you know."
When Rivers made the cover of Newsweek in June ("God vs. Gangs"), the staffer's white conservative Christian friends started calling from around the country. "I didn't call back. What they saw was the stick--that finally here was a black preacher who was going to give it to blacks."
The first time we talked, Rivers warned me, "There are no liberals in these trenches." But he went on to declare: "Liberalism and conservatism are now obsolete categories. Both are obsolete. Someone would say, `Well, Rivers, what are you?' I'd say, `I'm the hard right of the new left. I'm a bad motherfucker, boy. You got that right.' My argument is, all humans are created equal in the image of God. Freedom is not freedom to choose--no, you should be free to do the good, and that pursuit of the good should precede freedom." Instead of equal rights, he focuses on "developing a more viable and thicker structure of black civil society." This, of course, places the black church at the center of everything.
His black nationalism is pragmatic, a response to desperation and powerlessness in places like Dorchester. So in a way is his Christianity--"the long haul." "We deal with everybody," he said. "Monday we were with the sheriffs, then we were with the communists. Then I'm with a bar owner. I've got gangsters coming up in here trying to negotiate deals.... Anybody that demonstrates through hard work, industry and sincerity that they're going to help the poor, we're in solidarity with those folks."
For all the political talk, sophisticated and glib in the same breath, this ecumenism is almost antipolitical. In the one-by-one approach of the evangelical Christian, Rivers does not have a program for structural change. He claims Chomsky and Marcuse as influences but they don't show up in the trench work, and it's easy for the press to assume that he's at home with Focus on the Family's James Dobson (in fact, Rivers says Dobson believes in abortion of the black poor after birth). "Faith based" efforts are vulnerable to charismatic fanatics and crooks, and their effects are bound to be limited. But the emphasis on street-level work is also Rivers's main strength. In the neighborhoods he cares about, the old political rhetoric is part of the torpor. In certain historical situations, a correct rationale for the work can be an impediment to getting it done.
The worst that could be said about Rivers is that he believes he is black people's only hope.
There is a liberal of sorts in his trenches: a photographer and former soldier from Tel Aviv named Teny Gross, a white, liberal, secular, Zionist Jew who is employed by the city at Ella Baker House as a youth streetworker and who for nine years has been the Pentecostal minister's eyes and ears on the toughest "court involved" teenagers in Dorchester.
"Teny's not a liberal, and he's not white," Rivers told me. "He's Israeli."
I met Rivers through Teny, and I met Teny through the son of a white Kentucky preacher named Breck Withers. Once you enter the strange world of urban evangelicals, you keep hearing stories like Breck Withers's--"conversion experiences." Three years ago, he read an article in Urban Family magazine about a black minister at a Baptist church up the street from Ella Baker House. He sold his lawn-care business in Lexington, uprooted his wife and three children and moved to Boston, where he is a streetworker. It's also not uncommon to learn that these tireless advocates for the poor often vote Republican.
"Teny Gross calls up" Mark Scott, Rivers's chief of operations, recalled, "and says, `I just got in from Israel, right, I'm at the Museum of Fine Arts College, I'm a photographer, is there something I can do to help?' You say, `Well, yeah, come by.'" Camera around his neck, Teny got on the bus one day near the museum and got off in Dorchester--on "another planet." Slowly his bewilderment gave way to a sense of deja vu. It was a world unto itself, like the West Bank, where he had patrolled with the Israeli Defense Force just before the intifada.
Later Teny wrote that an experience like his first view of Dorchester "mark[s] the beginning of solidarity. And in doing so, it leaves each of us with the moral responsibility of working out the practical implications of that solidarity in the conduct of our own lives."
For Teny, the working-out meant that he never really got on the return bus. He has the manner of a soldier, detached but alert, as if at any moment things could get out of hand. He spends long days patrolling Dorchester with a cell phone and beeper, not as occupier but as advocate, keeping up with eighty or a hundred youths, getting them to school, to job interviews, to court
appointments. He says, "They need a Zionism for their own tribe."
Rivers lives in a cramped, book-crowded, charmless row house around the comer from Ella Baker ("If this man is a charlatan" one of his staff said, "this is a tough act to follow"). When I visited him there, he started pulling out back issues of Dissent and Marxist Perspectives.
The Christian Coalition has cozied up. He calls them "the flat-earth arm of the Afrikaner Church." The left has shown little interest in Rivers. Perhaps it doesn't know what to do with someone who says, "We're hard left on issues of economic democracy and labor, and cultural conservatives because that's what most people are on the planet Earth outside of the twilight zones of perhaps Harvard Square, certain sections of New York City and California, which is an independent country unto itself." He thinks that "virtuecrat" Republicans will split from economic libertarians and perhaps make common cause with black groups like his and the more imaginative liberals--probably wishful thinking on his part.
Yet in a way it doesn't matter if Rivers's ideas about the black church and coalition-building are wrong. What the Azusa Christian Community has is vitality. It drives the staff to feats of endurance and has brought several hundred of the city's most troubled kids under its wing. And this can't be mustered on demand. When you visit the NAACP headquarters--even the refurbished, brightly lit, computer-ready offices of the Mfume era--you know that you have entered an institution with a low vitality. Corporate-donor plaques line the wall. Staff members move at the pace of bureaucracy. Your thinking grows muted under the influence of "development action plans" and "upgrading of technology," and a part of you stops working.
Perhaps in ten years the offices of the National 10-Point Coalition will feel exactly the same way, with the Newsweek cover of a larger-than-life Reverend Rivers framed over the bored receptionist's desk. Already, Rivers is taking his ideas around the country. "You have to fly below the radar of the stars," he said, but Rivers himself is becoming a star. Some of the staff resent getting blamed when things go wrong and scarcely credited for everything else. Perhaps Rivers's ideas can't be replicated in Tulsa or Louisville. Perhaps the key to the work is local conditions and personalities, and going national with field coordinators will sap the success achieved in Dorchester.
But for now, when you sit at the conference table on the second floor of Ella Baker House, you sense that the people coming in and out of the room, needling, arguing, opening boxes of Haitian takeout, are in the grip of a moral passion that might be called love. Their work, combining unorthodox religious and political ideas with a street-level commitment to those whose prospects are bleakest, isn't new. The settlement-house workers did it; the student volunteers of the civil rights era did it. The movement today is in inner-city churches that talk rights and racism less than responsibility and faith. The right would like to claim them. The left would be extremely shortsighted to let this happen.
George Packer's most recent novel, Central Square, has just been published by Graywolf. Blood of the Liberals will be published in 2000 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.