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Civil rights leaders need new focus for their struggle

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Benjamin L. Hooks is stepping down at the end of the year, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will have to find a new executive director.

But first (if I may be so presumptuous) it needs to find a new direction.

That's not meant to be unkind. Both Hooks and the organization he has headed for 15 years have been vital to the cause of justice for black America. But the problems we face today are not the problems on which Hooks and his generation built their expertise. Things are different _ due in no small way to the work of Hooks and his predecessors in office.

Twenty or 25 years ago, a black person who got into trouble with a racist police officer, or who was denied a merited job or promotion, or who was barred from a "white" club or restaurant, would automatically call the local NAACP office _ to launch an investigation, to consider the possibility of a lawsuit, or just to have someone bring pressure on local elected officials.

Thanks to the success of the civil rights movement _ in voting rights and in government and in private employment _ the phone call is likelier now to go to a black (or racially sensitive) city official, police executive or journalist.

That's one change. Here's another: For Hooks' generation, the major threat to black progress was racism: police brutality, school segregation, housing discrimination, race-based job denial. All these things still happen, but mostly here and there, now and then. The big threat to our progress _ to our survival _ is now more internal than external, and mostly beyond the reach of legislation and court decrees.

Our children, particularly those with the bad luck to be born to poor parents, are too likely to become school dropouts, adolescent parents, drug peddlers or users, criminals. The leading cause of death of young black men is not the Klan but young black men themselves.

And here's the point: Our civil rights generals are still fighting the last war, demanding that government create and fund the programs we need, that the courts protect our interests, and that white America get religion, even while we're losing our own.

Our problems fester within our community, but our focus remains outside, on those who no longer see much justice in our demands.

By announcing in February his intention to retire at the end of the year, Ben Hooks has given black America's flagship organization the opportunity to set new priorities, to chart a new course.

And what might the new directions be? For me, the answer is easy: our children and our economic development. We are losing our children _ our legacy and our future _ and the pressing need is to rescue them and put them to useful work. It isn't necessary that Hooks' successor be someone who's figured out precisely how to accomplish that rescue. It would take only an invitation from the NAACP to assemble the best minds in black America to work out a rescue and economic development plan.

And not just black America. Top-flight sociologists, economists and psychologists of all colors would say yes to such an invitation. Major universities _ historically black or not _ would join in undertaking the necessary research. Philanthropists or philanthropic foundations would help with the funding.

But the effort has to begin with us _ with the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congressional Black Caucus and the dozens of smaller, local organizations, most of which already are doing at least some of the work I'm describing.

My notion is that the NAACP has the opportunity to make this black America's primary focus. We don't need to abandon the efforts to reduce racism (or at least to ameliorate its effects). We don't have to ignore discrimination in the corporate boardroom or on the ghetto street.

We simply need to focus first on the things that will make the most difference.

Washington Post Writers Group