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NAACP President Derrick Johnson On His New Appointment, Next Steps


Now we'd like to take a look at changes at one of this country's largest and oldest civil rights groups. This week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, made headlines after it issued a travel advisory against American Airlines. The group said flying with the airline could subject travelers, particularly African-Americans, to, quote, "disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions," unquote.

The NAACP described what it called four disturbing incidents that included a black passenger who was moved from her first-class seat to coach while her white traveling companion was allowed to remain in first class and another where a black passenger was removed from a flight after he responded to racial abuse from a white passenger who was allowed to remain.

This is being seen, in part, as an effort to strengthen the voice of the venerable civil rights organization. To that end, the NAACP also elected a new president and CEO, Derrick Johnson, just last week. And Derrick Johnson is with us now from Los Angeles, where he is traveling. Mr. Johnson, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations on the appointment.

DERRICK JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the travel advisory first, and then I want to broaden it out to your - kind of your broader vision for the organisation. What were you hoping this will accomplish, and do you think it's been effective so far?

JOHNSON: We identified a pattern with American Airlines where passengers began to complain to us concerning their treatment. I found it necessary that as an organization that fights against discrimination, we needed to take some action, or at a very minimum, alert our members and the African-American community at large that this pattern exists and to proceed with caution.

MARTIN: Well, this advisory comes after a summer when a lot of people complained of appalling treatment by the airlines. I'm thinking of an incident involving United Airlines where a man was dragged from the plane. There was another incident where a woman was reduced to tears when she asked for her stroller, and she was berated by an airline employee. And neither of the people in those very-well-publicized incidents was African-American. So I think the question for some people is, how do you know this is racially discriminatory and not just terrible service?

JOHNSON: Well, it could be both. In the case of American Airlines, we see the pattern toward African-American passengers. That's not to say that other airlines have not also engage in similar practices but not specifically targeted towards African-Americans.

MARTIN: The NAACP has been seen really for decades now as kind of the big voice. It's probably the group that, you know, most people know as sort of an institutional entity. But is there a sense among some in the organization perhaps even that it's lost its step a little bit?

JOHNSON: Well, one of the things we've done and I don't think we've done well is control our narrative. We are active in communities across the country. If you look at the work in Texas around access to voting, it's the NAACP that's leading that work. It's not the big headline news story, but it's a critical work. I think as an organization, we did not pivot hard enough in terms of controlling our narrative in a age when communication has been democratized.

Social media has created space for many more voices to be heard, and that's a good thing. It's a lesson that we can learn as an organization, but it's not the death knell of anything we do because it's so much of our work is done every day in local communities. And most of our footprint is a rural communities, so it's hard to hear what's taking place because we're isolated.

MARTIN: I mean, it's no secret that the current political leadership of the country is not as receptive to the NAACP message as perhaps previous administrations were. How will you judge your success?

JOHNSON: Well, the goal for us year-in and year-out is developing clear outcomes. And as an organization that advocates for public policy, it is clear that elections have consequences. So now we are preparing for the November midterm elections. That's a benchmark, and we have to be very clear in terms of, how do we impact the knowledge of our members and community at large to engage them in a way in which to go out to vote? African-Americans vote at a very high percentage during presidential elections. As an organization, you know, how do we try to sustain that going into 2018 midterm elections and really drill down with providing our units and our members the necessary strategy and focus to increase turnout in critical election areas?

MARTIN: All right, well, that's Derrick Johnson. He is the president and CEO of the NAACP. Derrick Johnson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.