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FIRST-PERSON: The NAACP: Seekers of peace or wielders of the sword?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Centuries ago, when Jesus Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers …,” he spoke a great injunction to man to seek peace, harmony and reconciliation.

Ever since, there have been numerous opportunities for men of goodwill to seek after peace.

In the past, sober in vision, led by men whose chief aim it was to relieve American blacks of demeaning “second-class citizenship,” the NAACP helped lead legal battles, such as Brown v. Board of Education, that remain monuments of triumph and sacrificial plain dealing. These victories resulted in the social good of blacks, of women and of every other minority in the country. “Blessed”, then, “are the peacemakers … .”

Recently, in a weeklong convention themed, “Freedom under Fire,” NAACP leaders gathered for what Lori Rodriquez of the Houston Chronicle described, July 8, as a “spirited mass meeting replete with Gospels and prayer.” Yet, in the midst of this worshipful atmosphere, NAACP leaders engaged in inflammatory name-calling. They personally attacked and bitterly criticized the president of the United States for what they deem to be an anemic and unsatisfactory civil rights record.

According to Stephanie A. Crocket, BET.com staff writer, Julian Bond, president of the NAACP, stated, “We have a president who owes his election more to a dynasty than to a democracy.” Frustrated with what he perceives as President Bush’s record of broken promises, Bond added, “We know he was in the oil business; we just didn’t know it was snake oil.”

Mr. Bond’s frustration with the president may or may not be warranted. However, Bond’s method of indirect engagement lacked decorum, real courage and was absent the savvy of clearly targeted direct action by which the NAACP historically has made its greatest social, political and legal impact.

During a July 10 news conference, Matthew Engle of the Guardian of London asked President Bush to answer the criticism of the NAACP. Obviously upset at having to do so, Mr. Bush defended his civil rights record by saying, “Let’s see. There I was sitting around the table with foreign leaders looking at Colin Powell and Condi Rice … .”

Though impressive, the federal appointments of Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice cannot fulfill the nation’s need to include all of its citizens at every level of American society. But the NAACP should not have used verbal flame-throwing at the president as the means to call attention to the need for civil rights changes through government policy.

The long history of courage, dignity and vigilance by the NAACP is impressive. Using these qualities, the NAACP effectively changed America’s past by opening basic liberties to all Americans in general and to African Americans in particular.

To move the country forward, many changes need to be made for the cause of full equality for everyone in America, but this can only happen if the ethical processes that garnered change in the first place are respected and preserved.

As early as Feb. 22, 2001, Congressman Dick Armey of Texas, in a letter to then-NAACP President Kwame Mfume wrote: “I believe there is a phenomenon in American politics today that could justly be called ‘Racial McCarthyism’ or reverse race-baiting.

“In my opinion,” Armey continued, “it has become an all too common practice to spread unfounded, racially charged falsehoods against Republicans for political advantage. Deliberate or not, if left unchallenged, this practice will continue to divide our nation, polarize our political parties, and do untold harm in the lives of real people who are unjustly accused of conspiracy against the civil rights of African Americans.”

Mr. Armey was correct. It is quite imperative that American politics rise above racial strife. Racial divisions will never serve the country well and high-profile racial and political animosities will not help African Americans further the causes of equality.

As the nation bulges with new immigrants from every corner of the world, the NAACP needs to map anew its vision for change in America. As president of the NAACP, Julian Bond has the charge to infuse the organization with the new life it needs for a new time of old labors. “Blessed”, then, “are the peacemakers …” — unless, of course, Mr. Bond comes to the NAACP not to bring peace, but a sword.
Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion and director of urban ministries studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd