Shirley Jahad talks with Leon Jenkins, head of the Los Angeles Branch, about the founding of the NAACP.
[Alicia Keys song "Superwoman"]
Shirley Jahad: Alicia Keys nominated for outstanding song with this one, "Superwoman." The awards honor artists for outstanding achievement in film, television, music, literature, and visual arts.
Halle Berry and Tyler Perry are hosting the event. This evening's event also marks the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, the venerated civil rights institution founded at the turn of the last century.
Groups of whites and African-Americans joined together back then to found the organization. I talked with Leon Jenkins – he's the head of the L.A. branch – about the founding of the NAACP.
Leon Jenkins: There was a lot of lynching in this country at that point in time, there was a lot of racial hostility, and they said enough is enough. So it was two, like, dual organizations that started. One was biracial, mostly white, and the other was the National Negro Committee that was formed that was basically all African-American.
And they came together, said look, we have a common bond, so let's come together as one. And they named themselves the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and they adopted Lincoln's birthday as the date of their existence.
Jahad: So today, we're celebration the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, and the NAACP was founded around the centennial.
Jenkins: February 12th, 1909. And at that point in time, we had some of the greater thinkers and African-American community come together. W.E.B. Du Bois, which most people know, started and was head of the Crisis magazine at that point in time.
Many other people that were a part of it, like Ida Wells, Oswald Garrison. Also, white Americans that, at that point in time, said we need to stop what we're doing in this country. It's not healthy, it's not good for us.
Jahad: In the years and decades after the founding, the NAACP led the way in terms of dismantling the legal system of discrimination that existed in the country, right?
Jenkins: Yes. And at the top of that list is Thurgood Marshall, which served for many decades as Supreme Court justice. He was one of our attorneys that fought in Brown versus Board of Education. And, it goes on.
I mean, if you have a job that you've been promoted from, that's front clerk person, to a supervisor, then you owe the NAACP a certain amount of gratitude, because we were at the forefront of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.
The right to vote for Barack Obama, you know, you go back to the Voting Rights Act. We were an extremely great part in getting that passed. And the Ledbetter law, which was just signed last week, I believe, where it's equal pay for equal work for women.
The NAACP was very instrumental in getting that law passed. Through the years, the NAACP has been at the forefront of every major piece of legislation, every major court decision that's come down in this country and supported people of color, and women.
Jahad: Following the storied decades of the NAACP advancing the rights of African-Americans, largely in the legal realm, there was a time when the position of the NAACP as an institution kind of receded. Tell us about that.
Jenkins: Well, one of the questions that we get asked a lot, especially by younger individuals, like, what is the NAACP doing for us right now? You know, I know their history, I know that they are very important to us and they're part of our past, but what about now?
We're still battling right now in Southern California. We filed a lawsuit last year with predatory lenders, where African-Americans, even with good credit, were being steered toward sub-prime loans.
Jahad: Going forward, what is the vision for the NAACP in an overarching way?
Jenkins: Economic justice. Economic development in the African-American community, in the poor communities, to allow more small businesses to operate. I mean, we still suffer from a society that do not give people of color the same interest rates on small business loans, or the same opportunities to get one.
Jahad: Going forward, some people have used this word "post-racial" with the election of Barack Obama. They say we're in a post-racial era. What is the place for an NAACP in a post-racial era?
Jenkins: Well, you know, the problem's not solved by one person breaking the glass ceiling, and I would challenge in the post-Obama period to just to make sure that everybody, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic group, is given a fair shot at realizing the American dream.
Jahad: That's Leon Jenkins, head of the L.A. NAACP.