The images are jarring. Photos of children with signs saying “NAACP, drop the lawsuit” and “NAACP, unite us, don’t divide us.” Video clips of parents, teachers and community leaders urging the NAACP to put the education of children first and to stop supporting the status quo.
It was so jarring because these children, parents and community leaders were black. Thousands of black Harlem residents rallied in the street May 26 protesting the NAACP.
The NAACP! In the heavens above, legendary figures such as Thurgood Marshall, Walter White and Roy Wilkins must be shaking their heads.
How did it get to the point that the country’s foremost civil rights organization is the target of a protestby the people it was created to serve? Forty years ago, Harlem was marching alongside NAACP leaders in the fight for justice and education equity for African Americans. So what happened?
Harlem residents gathered last month to urge the NAACP to drop a lawsuit it had filed with the teachers union against the New York City Department of Education. That lawsuit seeks to stop the closure of 22 bad schools as well as the placement of several charter schools in district school space. The lawsuit essentially could lead to the closing of several high-performing charter schools that primarily serve black children in Harlem. Seeing this threat, thousands of parents took to the street against those who would deny their child a good education — even if that meant marching against the NAACP.
In response, an NAACP spokesman says that the group supports alternative schools but doesn’t want the city to neglect its public schools. But wait a minute. Charter schools are public schools. What the NAACP seems intent on preserving is the “system” of New York public schools that has failed kids in Harlem for far too many years. System preservation has emerged as the common refrain from those fighting expanding charter schools and quality educational options for parents. Preserving such a system in its current form would ensure that thousands of low-income minority children fail to get the education they deserve. Ironically, the NAACP has become the protector of the status quo it once fought.
As an African American growing up in the ’60s, I revered the NAACP. I will never forget when my mother took me to a NAACP-League of Women Voters rally at Butler University in Indianapolis, my hometown. My mother was active in both groups, which, at that time, were protesting the presence of Alabama Gov. George Wallace on Butler’s campus. Wallace was an avowed segregationist who famously stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block the entrance of its first black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Only 7 at the time, I distinctly remember carrying a sign that I pointed in Wallace’s face. I don’t recall what the sign said, but I knew he didn’t want boys like me to get an education. As the police pushed me aside, my mother and her fellow protesters praised me for marching like a man for equal rights. Later, when my parents sat me down to give me my own NAACP membership card, I was proud beyond words.
I reflected on that time when I saw a photo of young black students at the Harlem march against the NAACP. I could see myself in one of those photos — a boy standing with his mom, holding a sign and making a statement in support of his future. I couldn’t help but see the irony: me marching with the NAACP against Wallace, and today’s children marching against the NAACP. It just shows that black parents will fight for the progress and quality education that their kids deserve — no matter who is standing in the way.
Kevin P. Chavous is the board chairman for the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Democrats for Education Reform, and a former Washington, D.C. councilman.