It’s Time for a Black Feminist to Head the NAACP

On Sunday, NAACP President Ben Jealous announced he will resign at the end of the year to spend more time with his family. Jealous took the helm of the 104-year-old civil rights organization in 2008 at a time when complaints abounded that the organization was out-of-touch. Five years later, the NAACP has been re-energized, with thousands of new young members, a staggering influx of revenue, a social media presence where none existed before, and hundreds of thousands of new voter registrations.

Jealous, a long-time community organizer and a grassroots activist at heart, was instrumental in revitalizing the NAACP as an organizing force for a wide range of issues, including racial disparities in the criminal justice system, immigration reform, stop and frisk, voting rights, the repeal of the death penalty in four states, and, to the chagrin of some of its members, marriage equality.

Despite a handful of missteps, the NAACP has been far from absent from the fight for gender equality. And women leaders have been central to the NAACP since its inception. Still, some critics have argued that the NAACP hasn’t focused enough on the concerns of Black women. In 2010, the lead blogger at the site What About Our Daughters wrote that the NAACP was quick to throw Shirley Sherrod under the bus after conservatives, led by the late Andrew Breitbart, accused her of making racially divisive remarks at an NAACP event. Sherrod’s remarks turned out to have been taken out of context, and Jealous ultimately apologized, but the damage had already been done. Another blog post also criticizes the NAACP for failing Black women and girls, noting that the NAACP’s policy objectives “are definitely not in the interest of Black women and girls who live under the tyranny of violent oppression.”

So the question remains: What can be done to center more of the NAACP’s activist and organizing work on issues specifically of concern to Black women? Should a Black woman be appointed the next president of the NAACP?

I asked that question of Loretta Ross, co-founder and former national coordinator for SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, and a tireless advocate for reproductive justice. “It depends on the woman,” Ross said. “Does she have feminist credentials? What is her feminist analysis?”

It’s a good point, to be sure. Simply elevating a woman to president of the NAACP does not necessarily mean that the group will center Black women’s issues in its activist and organizing work. And indeed, most of the women leaders in the group’s history have not operated from an explicitly feminist framework. Take Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers and president of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998. “Myrlie Evers was a powerful force within the NAACP,” Ross notes. “But Myrlie didn’t come from a feminist background, she came from a civil rights background.” (She put her civil rights background to great use, spearheading an effort to register a million voters for the 1996 elections.)

“The NAACP has a long history of standing up for gender and women,” said Ross. “It has made good strides in moving from civil rights to human rights, which has opened up the space to talk about women’s rights probably more than ever before in the past.”

Under Jealous, for example, the group has fought for women’s reproductive rights. In 2011, the NAACP publicly supported Planned Parenthood against right-wing attacks from Lila Rose’s anti-choice organization Live Action. The NAACP has also publicly sided against Republican Rep. Trent Franks’ Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) and filed a lawsuit challenging Arizona’s race- and sex-selection abortion ban. The group also protested against the “abortion is Black genocide” billboards that cropped up in Black neighborhoods in Atlanta in the spring of 2011. And, most recently, the NAACP helped organize Moral Monday efforts over the summer that brought thousands of North Carolinians together to protest a variety of issues affecting low-income women and women of color, including abortion access.

Still, Black women are uneasy allies of male-led civil rights organizations like the NAACP. “They are concerned about betrayal at any moment because there have been so many betrayals in the past,” Ross said, adding that such betrayals are common in women’s organizations too.

“I stand poised as a Black woman to say that I don’t think the women’s movement has been cured of the racism that alienates Black people, and I don’t think the civil rights movement has been cured of the sexism that alienates women,” she said. “There’s always been a strong gulf between advocates for racial justice and advocates for women’s rights, going back to the abolitionists and suffragist movement.”

The NAACP can become a leading voice in bridging that gulf, should it choose the right woman to ensure that reproductive rights, as well as voting rights and civil rights, are couched as human rights. Should the NAACP choose a woman well-versed in feminism (or womanism) and reproductive justice advocacy, she could lead the NAACP toward full recognition of the rights of Black women to live their lives as they choose—to be mothers or not be mothers. She could raise gender consciousness in the NAACP and in the Black community when it comes to issues like misogyny in hip hop and street harassment. And she would be poised to work with traditionally white feminist organizations to ensure intersectionality and inclusivity aren’t just buzz words.

Women of color are well-suited to build these sorts of alliances because we stand at the intersection of race and gender, and we recognize that sexism, racism, and classism are inseparable. As Ross points out, “We’re the ones most capable of building bridges, but the least likely to be called upon to build them.”

CORRECTION: A version of this article incorrectly noted that Loretta Ross is the current national coordinator for SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. She is in fact the former national coordinator. We regret the error.

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  • Spasmolytic

    A feminist NCAAP president is a great idea. This way if anyone disagrees with her she can call them a racist and sexist.

    • Dez

      Yup you got us figured out.

  • edtastic

    The last thing the black community needs is more feminism. As it stands we’re dealing with a virtual matriarchy with few men in the homes and boys falling far behind girls in schools. On the other hand I’m all for a female president but not a feminist. This ideology has been toxic because it was manufactured to serve the needs of middle class white women trying to achieve parity with relatively well off white men rather than poor working women working alongside poor men.

    “Another blog post also criticizes the NAACP for failing Black women and girls, noting that the NAACP’s policy objectives “are definitely not in the interest of Black women and girls who live under the tyranny of violent oppression.””

    Rhetoric like this is a real problem. For one black women aren’t living under violent oppression by men when men are not even in the home. Feminist are guilty of employing shameless sensational tactics that prove to be very divisive in the long run. It’s a ideology built on gender hate is something minorities can ill afford to tolerate while fighting hate and antipathy from many other directions.

    “So the question remains: What can be done to center more of the NAACP’s activist and organizing work on issues specifically of concern to Black women?”

    The current crisis affecting the black community surround the lives of black men. That much is painfully obvious considering the sky high murder rate among young males and the countless lives ruined as they’ve become absorbed into the criminal justice system. Along with lower degree attainment and higher dropout rates in high school, black males are clearly in crisis. Leave it to feminist to miss the point when males are in trouble. Their selfishness drives them to focus on women no matter the condition males are in but we should be smart enough to ignore them and do what’s needed.

    • Dez

      Clearly you are going off the stereotype of angry feminists that hate men. I can make the same stupid stereotype that you are a ignorant misogynist. Why stop at angry feminists and call black women slutty welfare queens as well. You should actually research feminists groups before spouting ignorance.

  • michaelderrick

    This is a great idea, this will end NCAAP for good. It will go down the same way the black Churches have gone, the black men will eventually leave after the whole thing become about bashing them by the anti-black men feminist. Black men then can build there own organizational, and rebuild a patriarchal structure to save our people from the matriarchy the racist feminism movement have given us.

    It is telling how self centered this black women are when they think “misogyny” in hip hop and not enough black babies being murder is the biggest problem black people face.

    • Dez

      Fuck you!! The only racist misogynist is you making insulting stereotypes of black women as angry sluts that kill their children.

      • that guy

        well, it is true….you would fit that description.

        • sammescalito

          Just reading some of these comments. Dude, you are really a nasty piece of work. I’ll bet that you’re really popular at the local gay bars. See, I can throw out insults just as easily as you, low life.

          • that guy

            sorry, i don’t talk to pu$sy-begging losers like you…..

          • sammescalito

            I don’t know if you noticed Einstein, but you just did! I guess they don’t make them too smart where you came from. LOL!

        • Dez

          LOL. Real classy. Sorry but my husband would disagree.

  • wat tyler

    Yeah because the best thing for black men is to have black feminists speak for them. Look at all the black boys growing up without a father, attend public schools were 90% of the teachers are female and as a result lack a single positive male role model until they reach adulthood and have absolutely no idea how to be a man. Look at all the black males who drop out of school. Look at all the black males that get imprisoned. Look at the sky high unemployment rate for black males, and please recall that black males do not qualify for the education/job training/health care/housing benefits that black females (especially if they are single mothers) do. But hey, forget all that because the most important thing to the black community is making sure that America continues to have the fewest abortion restrictions of any country in the world. France, Germany, England, Canada, Australia … all those countries make abortion illegal after the 2nd trimester, yet we need a feminist NAACP leader to address that vital issue to the economic, social and educational future of the black community.

  • Spasmolytic

    Early feminists were racists…..

    Margaret Sanger (Founder of Planned Parenthood)

    On blacks:

    “…human weeds,’ ‘reckless breeders,’ ‘spawning… human beings who never should have been born.”

    On the rights of the handicapped and mentally ill, and racial minorities:

    “More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief aim of birth control.”

    On the extermination of blacks:

    “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population,” she said, “if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.

    • Dez

      More ignorance. Sorry to burst your bubble, but black women are more intelligent than you to know that PP does not advocate eugenics and that going to PP is voluntary. We are not stupid brainwashed people that get dragged to clinics to have forced abortions done on us. Wow the stupidity of force birthers is astounding.

  • Guest

    Feminism is a movement created and run by white women with the sole purpose of creating a privileged class of white women.

    • Dez

      So black feminists don’t exist? That’s so stupid.

  • Guest

    As far as I know Martin Luther King wasn’t pro-abortion and anti-religion.

    • Dez

      Actually his was for abortion rights. He even received an award. Look it up.