At the height of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the Topeka chapter of the NAACP was a powerful force in the struggle for racial justice.
The chapter spearheaded the original Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education lawsuit at the trial court level. That case was eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was merged with other NAACP-sponsored lawsuits from around the country, resulting in the landmark 1954 decision that struck down racial segregation in public schools.
But for most young people growing up today, that struggle, and the organization behind it, are concepts that may be known only from history books and documentary films. Although the Topeka chapter still is active in civil rights issues in northeast Kansas, most of its members are at or nearing retirement age, and few young people feel a need to get involved.
That's something Rev. Delmar White, pastor of the Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church in Lawrence and newly-elected president of the NAACP Topeka chapter, hopes to change.
"We're the beneficiaries of those (earlier) struggles," White said during a recent interview. "But because there isn't a visible struggle, many of this generation don't really see why they want to be a part of that.
"I think because there's a lack of a real visible struggle — like the civil rights struggle and Brown vs. Board of Education — that was something lived every day," he said. "Plus there are other avenues of interest that capture young adults' attention."
Engaging today's youth
According to several members of the organization, White is apparently the first Lawrence resident elected president of the Topeka chapter.
White, 49, is a native of Lawrence and a graduate of Lawrence High School. He earned his bachelor's degree in divinity at Western Baptist Bible College, and teaches at the college's Topeka campus in addition to leading the Lawrence congregation. He also is pursuing a master's degree in divinity from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee.
He was elected president of the Topeka NAACP chapter in April, succeeding Rev. Ben Scott of Topeka.
Scott said he, too, found it hard to get young people involved in the NAACP.
"That hasn't been an easy challenge because a lot of the issues we're dealing with today, these kinds of issues are not too interesting to our young people," Scott said. "I'm not saying they're not important, but they don't seem to be of interest to the extent that they want to get involved with them."
Equal education still not achieved
Although Brown vs. Board of Education gave African-Americans the right to attend the same schools as white children, Rev. White said the struggle for equality in education continues.
Today, however, the issue is about achievement, and specifically the gaps in academic achievement between black and white students.
While many people argue that the federal No Child Left Behind law forced significant progress in narrowing those achievement gaps in terms of standardized test scores, White said the law has been "a miserable failure" in addressing the broader equity issues.
"I think the concept was a valid one, but I think the implementation failed," White said. "And so here we are now, even in the Lawrence district, with gaps in dropout rates and graduation rates with African-Americans. Statewide, those numbers are dismal as well."
According to Kansas State Department of Education data, for the class of 2012, the statewide four-year graduation rate was 84.9 percent. But among black male students it was only 71.2 percent, and for black female students it was 80.9 percent.
The Lawrence school district showed similar gaps, according to state data.
White said the NAACP has several initiatives at both the national and local level aimed at closing those gaps.
One is called ACT-SO, which stands for "Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics," an achievement program designed to stimulate high academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students.
But White said he wants the NAACP to do more — working with other groups to form mentoring programs, as well as lobbying the state and local school boards and the Kansas legislature.
"Because the consequences of not doing anything is a high crime rate when kids with no high school diploma," he said. "It's just cyclical. One thing leads to another."