NAACP Struggles to Maintain Political Prominence

These days, civil rights leaders are struggling to be heard.

NAACP chairman Julian Bond has been trying, to no avail, to get the attention of one leader in particular: President Bush.

Bond opened the NAACP's annual convention Sunday by criticizing the war in Iraq and pushing for voting protections, but he also had a message for Bush.

"This year the convention has come to the president and we hope and pray he is coming to us," Bond said at the Washington Convention Center, about a mile from the White House.

Bond has invited Bush to six conventions.

Bush has avoided the gatherings since taking office in 2001, making him the first sitting president in decades not to have spoken to the group. His schedule for Wednesday lists an event with the notation "TBA," or to be announced.

Bond said Bush's presence would show that he hears the concerns of black Americans. "We have values, we vote our values, and we demand to be valued in return," he said.

More than 2,000 people gathered for Bond's hourlong keynote speech, which kicked off the 97th convention of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

On Monday, NAACP president Bruce S. Gordon is scheduled to address members and the group will release report cards grading industries on how well they serve minority communities. Since 1997, the NAACP has ranked banks, phone companies, hotels and other companies.

Sunday, Bond urged lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, condemned attacks on school integration and said the war in Iraq "has weakened rather than strengthened America's defenses, including our levees."

He added, "Our troops may be fighting to secure democracy abroad, but we can't secure our democracy at home."

Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate to the House, said voting irregularities still hit minorities hardest.

"The United States has a ways to go before a black or brown voter has nothing to worry about when he or she goes to the polls," she said.

Bond added, "We might call it voting while black."

He called on lawmakers to renew expiring portions of the Voting Rights Act. The House voted last week to renew it, but the Senate also needs to act. NAACP members planned to lobby for the legislation on Wednesday.

Bond criticized Republicans for ethical lapses and said "some of the Democrats won't take their own side in a fight."

His frustrated tone reflected the diminished status of the NAACP and other civil rights groups at a time when conservatives dominate Washington and public policy tackling racial discrimination is being dismantled.