Continuing the Conversation on Race

Now that Americans blithely toss around the term postracial, it’s hard to put yourself back one hundred years. Ninety per cent of American blacks lived in the South, where white supremacy was the rule, and the laws were much the same. The North was not different enough; there was a two-day mob spree killing and wounding of blacks in Springfield, Illinois, the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, though forty years had passed since the official end of the Civil War. Lynchings were not uncommon and segregation was legal. To talk to someone of another race could be dangerous; suspicion and fear surrounded such conversations.

Into this atmosphere of hatred came an experimental alliance of black and white people, Christians and Jews, men and women. They shared a goal that must have seemed improbable if not impossible: stopping the downward spiral of black life and race relations in the new century.

They formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.

So successful has been this brave association, and the wider civil rights movement, that people now debate its relevance. Yet the NAACP’s new president, the young Benjamin Jealous, has cultivated a resurgence of young activists, many energized by President Obama’s campaign. Mr. Jealous has a vibrant agenda: “Dream big and work with us to get smart on crime . . . to end racial profiling, and the draconian drug laws and unequal sentencing . . . insist with us that the schools in our neighborhoods and the teachers who serve our children are the best in the world . . . be a better parent, a better father, a better student, a better citizen.”

Three Vineyard women last week were celebrated by the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of this organization for their own contributions to bettering the Island. Lorna Andrade, Marie Araujo and Carrie Tankard are among many who have worked to make this what Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Sunday called one of the most integrated places in the country. Through his own ordeal of recent weeks, Professor Gates has found refuge here, where postracial is a word that has more credibility than in most places.

Yet as the Gazette has recently reported, there remains a whiff of segregation here, debated by nameless sources in the national press, within the black and white communities on the Island as well as between them. The need for progress remains, though it may be felt with less urgency, thankfully, here.

On Friday evening at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, another Vineyard seasonal resident, Patricia Sullivan, will launch her rich history of the NAACP, a handsome book called Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement.

In it she recalls how Mr. Obama’s inauguration was anticipated by Charles Houston sixty years earlier, as he watched the parade for Harry S. Truman. “Looking at the crowd that had gathered he kept wondering whether ‘the first black president of the United States was among the children’ watching the parade ‘in person or listening to it over the radio or whether he has been born.’ He told readers of his column in the Baltimore Afro-American that ‘if we can speed our rate of progress and self-discipline some of us may live to see him inaugurated.’ By then, though, ‘it will not make any difference . . . what blood he has. The sole question is likely to be simply whether he is the best man (or woman — why not?) for the job.’ ”

The book launch will feature special guests Margaret Burnham, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Charles Ogletree and, of special interest to fans of The Wire, Clark Johnson, who played Gus Haynes in that television series. Sheldon Hackney will moderate their discussion, and the audience can participate with questions. It is another chance for us all to keep talking and exploring the ways we can achieve, in a more perfect way, the world where black and white and any other Americans really do have an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.