Changing of the Guard: Resounding Speech by the Rev. Jamal Bryant
By Jeffrey Ball, Knight-Ridder, Wednesday 10 July 1996
CHARLOTTE -- The NAACP's new youth coordinator Monday issued a stinging indictment of the organization's graying leadership, saying the civil rights group has grown complacent by largely ignoring troubled young people who most need its help.
Following a series of sedate poetry readings and familiar gospel songs, Jamal-Harrison Bryant, a 25-year-old divinity student, rose before the NAACP convention crowd and announced "a changing of the guard" at the national civil rights organization.
"'A lot of old NAACPers -- yeah, I'm gonna call it as I see it -- a lot of the old NAACPers are afraid of the new generation that's rising," said Bryant, who was tapped this year to resuscitate the group's moribund college and youth division.
"They're saying we're too young. They're saying we're too inexperienced. They're saying we weren't there to march with the dogs in Selma," said Bryant, who proceeded to offer a response: "If in fact you don't take care of us today, there'll be no NAACP tommorow."
In his 20-minute speech, Bryant lashed out at what he described as an entrenched and aging NAACP leadership that he said has become more concerned with maintaining its creature comforts than with reaching out to the neediest African Americans.
"Before we can go to the next level, we've got to get the ones we've forgotten," he said. "We've got to get the teenage mothers. We've got to get the teenage fathers. We've got to get the ones who are strung out on crack."
He added: "Time's out for selling T-shirts and thinking you've done something. We're about changing lives."
Bryant, who wasn't yet born during the 1960s civil-rights battles, is among the youngest of a young crop of new NAACP leaders. Former Maryland congressman Kweisi Mfume, 47, took office in February as the group's chief executive officer and president.
In his five months in office, Mfume has stressed the need to attract the "30-and-under crowd" to the NAACP.
"I believe the organization has to get to a point where it embraces generational change," Mfume said this spring. "We have to give them real roles, real responsibilities and give them a sense of ownership. And then at the end of the day we have to hold them responsible."
The ascension of Mfume to leadership of the NAACP has gone a long way toward convincing African American youth of the value of the organization, said Jesus Kantal, 17, who traveled to the NAACP convention with a youth group from Deerfield Beach, Fl.
Mfume "dropped out of high school. He was on the streets. (But) look where he's at," Kantal said. "He really gets in touch with us, the young people." Mfume illustrates that "just because you make one mistake doesn't mean it'll ruin your life," Kantal said.
Together, Mfume and Bryant "kind of serve as fresh legs" for the 87-year-old civil rights organization, said Brian White, 21, a Charlotte software consultant who graduated in May from N.C. A&T University.
"If they continue to address the practical issues, and address the practical issues without sidestepping them, that will continue to attract people like me," he said.
As Bryant spoke Monday night in the cadence of the southern preacher that he is, even some of his gray-haired listeners stood to shout encouragement and dance in the Charlotte Convention Center's aisles. When he was finished, they rose to their feet and roared.
If older NAACP members were offended by the Duke University divinity student's harsh words, they didn't say so.
"I think he's right. We need to make sure we're training our young people to take charge," said George Stinson, 55, a Wisconsin businessman active in the NAACP since he was Bryant's age.
He said the NAACP must do more to attract people aged 20 to 40. "We have sort of been there a long time and some of us have thought that the young folks need to stand by and wait," Stinson said. "And I think it's wrong."
Mildred Sands, 75, was even more entranced by the young NAACP leader who could have been her grandson.
"Mfume, his speech was dynamic. But this man, he had me spellbound," Sands, a retired state government worker from Brooklyn, N.Y., said of Bryant. "He moved me."
Transmitted: 7/9/96 8:52 PM (naa0710d)
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