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There is new leadership at the nation's oldest civil rights group. The NAACP selected an interim president and CEO this past weekend in Baltimore. It happened at its annual convention. And the organization is planning to undergo more changes. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports from Baltimore.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: If the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is known as the conscience of America, its new interim leader, Derrick Johnson, says it's time to reinvigorate it.
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DERRICK JOHNSON: With the looming midterm elections, with the upcoming census, with the reality of the impact that redistricting would bring, the NAACP must stand and stand tall. And we must stand in every community across this landscape.
WANG: Johnson is not a new voice within the 108-year-old organization. He served as a vice chair of the group's national board of directors and led the Mississippi State Conference NAACP. He's expected to fill in as the national head of the NAACP through the end of this year, when the board hopes to announce a new leader. Johnson says his focus now is making sure local activists are getting enough support because that's where public policy has been impacting people most directly.
JOHNSON: We must be in city halls. We have to be present at county commissions or supervisor meetings. We must have a clear voice with state legislative processes across the country.
WANG: Johnson is planning to travel to Detroit, San Antonio, Texas, and other cities, over the next few months, on a listening tour for outreach. The group is also trying to recruit more younger members, specifically those between the ages of 21 and 35. That's a demographic that's been largely missing within the organization, according to the local president of the NAACP's Washington, D.C., branch, Akosua Ali.
AKOSUA ALI: Young people do not know everything. But they have the energy. They have the will. They have the tenacity. Paired with the knowledge of our elders, we can be an immovable force.
WANG: Ali's 34 and first joined the NAACP through a college chapter, where she and other students were trained as activists.
ALI: The NAACP specifically has the base of youth that are already trained. So it's even more important for us to be able to build upon that foundation and keep them connected so that they don't transition out.
WANG: Ali says many young people may have stopped participating in the NAACP after they got their first jobs or started their own families. That's why she says the NAACP is starting a new leadership training program for young adults to ease them into local affiliates and prepare them to eventually run them. Still, some social justice activists outside the NAACP see the group as too bureaucratic at a time of political and economic uncertainty.
CORTLY WITHERSPOON: I think that there is a very strong sense of urgency from the ground - the working-class people.
WANG: Elder Cortly C.D. Witherspoon is a minister and activist from the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived.
WITHERSPOON: And because of the class divide within the NAACP, I'm not sure that the cries of the people on the ground are resonating to the top.
WANG: Witherspoon lost a local election for president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch last fall. He says the organization should take more direct action in neighborhoods. Walter Jones, who is also living in West Baltimore, says he wants to see a more active organization too.
WALTER JONES: NAACP doesn't come fast enough - you know, not that they don't do great. They go through the laws and actually protect a lot of people from misjudgment and misconduct and so forth.
WANG: He says that leadership may have led to lifelong support for the NAACP from his late parents and grandparents. But he wonders if that level of activism is enough to engage people today. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Baltimore.
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