KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The head of the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization, fearing a loss of momentum since the 2008 election, plans to use the group’s annual convention to get people “off the couch” and re-energized to fight back against a tea party movement that opposes much of President Barack Obama’s agenda.
The NAACP convention started Saturday and has focused on education and the mounting jobs losses that have disproportionately affected minorities. Headliners will include First Lady Michelle Obama and the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton.
“We have to close the enthusiasm gap and remind people that the majority that existed two years ago still exists today,” said Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in a phone interview.
Since the presidential election, the tea party has emerged, espousing a political philosophy of less government, a free market, lower taxes, individual rights and political activism.
To Jealous, the movement is pushing the country backward. He said that when people “get hit in the pocketbook, they start looking for scapegoats, and they start tearing the country apart.”
What is crucial, he said, is to talk about issues that unite the United States.
“The danger of the tea party is that people see them and think about periods in history when groups like them were much more powerful than they are now,” he said. “And so a lot of what we spend energy doing is explaining to people what reality is, and that the reality is that the majority from 2008 still exists. It went no where but back on the couch, and our biggest challenge is to get it back off the couch and back to the streets and back on the battlefield.”
Greg Ward, a Kansas real estate agent and a tea party activist who co-founded a group called the Kansas 912 Project, disputed assertions that the group doesn’t want progress and said its members have made extra efforts to include black conservatives who are concerned about the direction of the country.
“I think part of the tea party thing is people are just tired of the polarization and the lack of the government being in touch with the majority of the people,” Ward said.
Beyond increased activism, Jealous said the top short-term goal is jobs. The convention, which goes through TODAY, will include a session on green jobs, and speakers will talk about how the BP oil spill is affecting several disenfranchised communities, including Vietnamese, American Indian and black fishermen and oil workers.
“Nothing happens unless people get back to work,” Jealous said. “We don’t have money for schools. We don’t have money to pay mortgages with, so jobs are key.”
Speakers at the convention also will include Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has pushed to turnaround faltering schools in poor communities. Duncan also has vowed increased vigilance to make sure students have equal access to everything from college prep classes to science and engineering programs.
Other highlights during the week:
- Wells Fargo, whom the NAACP sued over claims it forced blacks into sub-prime mortgages, is one of the event’s sponsors. The lawsuit was settled in April, and Wells Fargo staff will be at the convention talking to borrowers about modifying loan terms. Several other NAACP lawsuits against lenders are pending.
- Speakers, including the president of the National Medical Association, will talk about childhood obesity and other health issues that are hitting minority communities hard.
- NAACP leaders and representatives from various federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and Housing and Urban Development, will talk about new efforts to improve civil-rights enforcement. Starting this week, the NAACP is launching a system called “All Allert” that will provide a way for witnesses and victims of police misconduct or hate crimes to report directly from their cell phone.