The oldest civil rights organization in the United States, the NAACP, held its annual convention in Washington this week. Among those attending were young people from across the nation, whose involvement in politics and the democratic process have become one of the NAACP's major goals.
As the National Director of the NAACP's Youth and College Division, Stefanie Brown, 25, led the call at the convention for young people to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents and march on the Capitol for civil rights. "We as young people want to let them know that we vote, and we make sure our families vote and our friends vote. So today we ask that you join us as we make our voices heard and make sure that our votes are valued."
Hundreds of youths joined well over a thousand senior members of the NAACP to show their support for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in 1965 to protect African Americans' constitutional right to vote by removing discriminatory barriers to the ballot box.
Quinton James, 18, was among the demonstrators. He says for him it was like stepping back in history to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King's historic march in 1963. "The rally was like our 'March on Washington.' I saw the parallel from the 1960s to now,? James says, adding, ?it was exciting to be able to walk in the nation's capitol and go talk to your senators. That was incredible."
The 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act passed both the House and Senate and President Bush pledged to sign it into law.
Young Quinton James, who is the state president for the South Carolina Youth and College Division of the NAACP, has been a member for two-and-a-half years. He says some young African Americans may believe their parents and grandparents fought and won the battle for civil rights, and that the NAACP is no longer relevant to them today. But James says civic engagement is still important. "President Bush said this. America is a land that has to keep redeveloping and refurbishing the rights that are protected. Our country has been around for 200 some odd years, but our democracy has to flourish through young people standing up and changing what they see is wrong."
James did just that, when he worked with other NAACP youth to register voters in Greenville County, South Carolina, and to press the county government to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a holiday.
"Greenville County was one of the last counties in the nation to approve the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday as a paid county holiday,? James says. ?Finding the members of county council who wouldn't vote for it and kicking them out of office -- that was very exciting. Seeing the power that young people have, the influence we have on adults' decisions, for me that is very invigorating. Something I can say can change the mind of someone who is older and use that power to change my community, for me that is fun."
Quinton James can't understand why that wouldn't be fun for others, but he suspects it's because they have never had the experience. "I think people have to experience it. They have to make it relevant to their lives. It's kind of hard to market that message."
But that is what the NAACP Youth and College Division, under director Stefanie Brown is starting to do: exploring ways of reaching out to young African Americans who are not yet politically engaged. "We know that entertainment or celebrities are a big draw to get their attention,? Brown says. ?[So] we go and partner with different entertainers, something we are working on now.? She says they are also planning on developing promotional materials for television stations and magazines that are popular with young African Americans.
Right now, the NAACP's Youth and College Division claims 35,000 members - some as young as five and some as old as 25. As they work to bring a new generation of leaders into their ranks, NAACP officials say the group offers young people an historic sense of purpose, a place to grow, and a strong political voice - powerful incentives for tomorrow's civil rights champions.