On the NAACP and Boycotts, by Kimberley Jane Wilson

A New Visions Commentary paper published August 1999 by The National Center
for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Ct., N.E., Washington, DC 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax 202-543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web
http://www.nationalcenter.org. Reprints permitted provided source
is credited.

A few years ago, I paid a visit to my grandfather. At first, he didn’t recognize me. Alzheimer’s Disease had robbed him of his memory. After a bit of gentle coaxing, he had a sudden but pitifully brief breakthrough. While he still couldn’t recall my father – his first-born son – he did remember me as a baby. I reintroduced him to my husband and we chatted for about ten minutes about the last twenty years of my life. When the visit was over, I went to my car and hid my face in my hands and wept.

Lately, the NAACP has come to resemble my grandfather in more than a few ways. Both were once strong and proud, and both have been laid low by mysterious internal forces. The NAACP used to be a grand symbol of the best of black America but, as Alzheimer’s patients sometimes do, it seems to have lost its way. The call for a boycott of South Carolina, and the city of Charleston in particular, is a perfect example.

There is a Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina State House. It’s right next to the state flag. For this reason, the NAACP has decided that black folks shouldn’t go to South Carolina. Well now! In case Kweisi Mfume and the rest of the NAACP haven’t noticed, it’s August. This is the month that many black people traditionally take their "let’s go home and see the family down south" vacations. Somehow, I can’t imagine anyone calling up Big Mama or Aunt Pearl to say "Sorry, we can’t come this summer. The NAACP has declared a boycott."

As for the boycott of Charleston, I wonder if the NAACP knows how many black people in that city depend on tourism for their living? Besides all the folks in the hospitality industry, there are the proud Gullah people of the South Carolina Islands. Their remarkable culture is the last link to the folkways of our West African ancestors. Who do you think buys the exquisite sweet grass baskets and silk floral arrangements that the Gullah make? Tourists! Charleston is a treasure trove of black history and heritage, something that the NAACP apparently has forgotten.

It’s been argued that the boycott is important because of the symbolism involved. I’m a little tired of symbolic gestures. They are cheap and easy. Yes, although I was a post-civil rights era baby, I know what the Confederate flag represents. I understand why elder relatives bristle at the sight of it. I certainly wouldn’t be sorry to see it banished from the State House, but black America has some very serious non-symbolic problems that should be addressed first.

Too many black teenagers are getting pregnant. By doing so, they are writing themselves and their offspring a one-way ticket to poverty. Overall, 70% of our children are born out of wedlock. Despite all the advances of modern medicine, we still have a shockingly high infant mortality rate and black women have a greater chance of dying in childbirth than white, Asian or Latino women. The leading cause of death for young black males is homicide. Black boys on average don’t do as well in school as black girls, and many of these boys are not going on to college after high school. Drugs, especially crack, have devastated the inner cities of America. AIDS, a plague straight out of hell, has become the leading killer of black people between the ages of 24 and 35. Will boycotting South Carolina do anything about any of these problem? I don’t think so.

Cheap, easy gestures won’t even begin to make a dent in our problems. The NAACP used to be about grand, important things. It used to be about the advancement of all black people. It was the great champion of black America. With the exit of Benjamin Chavis, many of us hoped that a new day would dawn for the NAACP. It’s beginning to look, however, like an organization that is in the same shape as my grandfather – dearly loved and still respected for the sake of the past, but undeniably changed for the worst.

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