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.