When the most prominent African-American civil rights group recently issued a nationwide warning against flying on American Airlines, it was a surprising move for an organization known more for slow-moving lawsuits than public confrontation with major corporations.
Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said they were following tradition in standing up to the company after investigating a series of complaints that it had discriminated against black passengers who were removed from flights or had their seats downgraded against their will. The airline shot back, calling the accusation disappointing and saying it did not "tolerate discrimination of any kind."
Civil rights historians and activists say the rebuke of one of the nation's biggest corporations is part of a growing effort by the 109-year-old organization to reboot. It follows years of complaints that it has become out of touch as social-media-fueled movements like Black Lives Matter ignite protest and policy change.
"NAACP has had extraordinary success in local issues but nationally it's faded," said Craig Wilder, a historian who studies race at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "This is a critical period where it has to reinvent itself."
When black and white activists in New York founded it in 1909, the NAACP was largely focused on fighting against the wide-scale lynching of African-Americans. Within a decade, it had tens of thousands of members around the U.S. One of its first major triumphs came in 1930, when it persuaded senators to block the nomination of a judge to the Supreme Court because of his negative views on civil rights.
In the decades after that, the group turned aggressively to protests and lawsuits. It was prominent in Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that led to the desegregation of schools — and helped usher in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But in recent years it has hit setbacks over finances, leadership and a growing chorus of critics attacking its relevance.
The spat with American Airlines was the latest flashpoint for the organization in its months-long attempt to reset.