KANSAS CITY • The head of the NAACP paused, started, then paused again when trying to explain what the message of his keynote address would be when he steps to the podium tonight at the civil rights organization's national convention.
"The core message will be that we've got to pull this nation back together and put this country back to work," said Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, in an interview.
Jealous' strategy for pulling the country back together might at first blush surprise those at the convention. His idea: Follow the lead of the Tea Party movement, which emerged in full force after the election of President Barack Obama with rallies, town hall meetings and a "take back the country" mantra.
But as the conference unfolded Sunday, the sentiments expressed by Jealous were echoed throughout the Kansas City Convention Center, where as many as 8,000 NAACP members are gathering.
Jealous and many at the convention said those who voted for Obama, based on his promise of change, must continue to stay engaged in the issues, go to the polls regularly and ensure that the trust they have placed in electing the first black president pays off and leads to the election of more minorities.
"That change is attainable," Jealous said. He said the NAACP and its supporters must work together "with the knowledge that if we don't make change happen, someone else will, and it won't be the change we voted for."
Roland Burris, the only African-American in the U.S. Senate, said NAACP members could either use the tactics of the Tea Party, or risk being defeated by them.
"There are a whole bunch of us and a handful of them, but the media projects them to be more powerful than they are," the Illinois Democrat said Sunday afternoon at a session featuring black legislators. He said blacks could not settle for the success of getting Obama elected.
"If you go home, and don't do something, then we ought to get what we deserve," Burris said.
An energized NAACP — together with leadership by black legislators — will probably be an effective way to get African-Americans across the country engaged in the country's political future after an apparent lull after Obama's election, said John Powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.
Tapping into anger follows the path of the Tea Party movement, Powell said.
"They were able to tap into the underlying anxiety that people were feeling. They gave it a name and built energy around it," Powell said of the Tea Party. He argues that the NAACP would actually be taking back from the Tea Party what the civil rights organization and many other Obama supporters initially started in building a momentum behind Obama's run for president.
"When Obama ran, he tapped into hope. It was fairly vague. He didn't say what it would be, but said it would be something different," Powell said. "People, in a way, put their own hopes into that vague picture."
Specifically, the NAACP now hopes to take a more aggressive role in pushing for equity in an economy that has hit America — especially minorities and the poor — hard. The largest civil rights organization, founded 101 years ago, wants to make sure that when companies start hiring again, minorities will not be left out.
But as Jealous and the association focus on getting blacks and other minorities back into the work force, they have held-over issues that they find equally important and vexing: bridging the wealth gap between whites and minorities; improving public schools, especially in urban areas, where the majority of students are African-American; and providing better access to health care while HIV, childhood obesity, heart disease and diabetes cases continue to rise in black communities.
And as the group, formally known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is broadening its agenda, it sees its membership dropping. NAACP leaders offer widely different membership numbers, ranging from 250,000 to 500,000. In 1964, when the Civil Right Act was passed, the organization stood at 600,000 members.
Jealous says the organization is challenged with recruiting young members, who see the fight as over and the group as something relegated to their past, a movement that their parents or grandparents might have been involved in. Jealous said the NAACP had to re-engage minorities, bring back the passion and energy that was seen across the country two years ago at the prospect of having a black president. That can be done by going after the youths who took such a prominent role in Obama's campaign, he said.
Jealous, 37, and Roslyn M. Brock, 45, chairman of the NAACP board of directors, are the youngest to hold their respective positions in the organization's history.
The NAACP is revamping its online efforts with a more aggressive social networking campaign including hiring the company that created Obama's presidential campaign website. The convention, which continues through Thursday, includes a speech today by Michelle Obama, who is enjoying strong popularity among young women. And the theme of tonight's youth town hall meeting is "Rep the Past, Remix the Future," including an appearance by actress Raven Symone. Actress Jada Pinkett-Smith is expected at a youth awards dinner on Wednesday, with a concert by singer Monica.
Still, some blacks regard Obama in the White House as the crowning achievement of civil rights.
"They see Obama is president and that there is nothing to worry about," said St. Louis NAACP President Claude Brown. "Yet, whole neighborhoods are being destroyed by foreclosures. People are falling out of the middle class by the thousands. Services that used to be available to the poor (public transportation, social services) are going away. It's not necessarily that we're trying to find the devils but trying to find out what the real solutions are to those things that tend to plague African-Americans."
Jealous said people were exhausted by the efforts to get Obama elected.