The top leaders of the NAACP held their final listening tour in the District of Columbia recently.
Leon Russell, chairman of the board of the NAACP and its president and CEO Derrick Johnson, convened an ad hoc meeting of the D.C. NAACP on Dec. 4 at the Dorothy I. Height Library in Ward 7. The meeting was emceed by D.C. NAACP President Akosua Ali.
“This is a listening tour,” Russell said to the crowd of 150 people that included former D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander and members from Jersey City, N.J., Baltimore and Prince George’s County, Md. “We are not here to make speeches to you. We need to re-image our association.”
The NAACP is the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, founded in 1909. It has played a key role in helping Blacks achieve parity with Whites in the areas of housing, education, employment and political empowerment.
The NAACP has more than 2,000 units that consist of youth, college and prison branches that deal with a wide range of issues on a non-partisan basis. Its membership is predominantly Black and its national headquarters are located in Baltimore.
The District was the last stop on the tour with Russell and Johnson conducting listening tours in Detroit, Niagara Falls, N.Y., Los Angeles, Nashville, Tenn., Des Moines, Iowa and San Antonio.
Russell called out a number of issues such as education, health care, youth empowerment, voting rights as things the NAACP works on but he wanted to know from the audience whether those should remain priorities.
“Where do we need to be on those issues?” he asked rhetorically. “What do our units need to do? Give us an idea what we need to be working on.”
Russell and Johnson got an earful. People talked about national and local issues, often passionately.
Wylie Webb a resident of Ward 7, complained about the accessibility of D.C. NAACP meetings and its impact on the local level.
“The location of the meeting is a problem for me,” Webb said. The D.C. NAACP general body meetings take place at the Thurgood Marshall Center located on 12th Street., N.W. on the second Thursday of the month.
Webb said parking is “horrible” in that part of the city.
“I had to drive around for 30 minutes before I found a parking spot,” she said. Webb also said the D.C. NAACP leaders need to have a stronger presence in the city.
“I don’t see the NAACP in the community,” she said. “The leaders of the branch need to write op-eds in the newspaper about what is going on in the city and get involved in local issues.”
Charles Lockett, a Ward 5 resident who used to live in Ward 7, said the NAACP needs to focus more on economic empowerment and development.
“I don’t see economics,” he said. “There is only one Safeway in this area but in Ward 5, where I live, there is economic development taking place at South Dakota Avenue with supermarkets planned.
Lockett suggested that the D.C. NAACP form a focus group that will emphasize neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
Ali, who is a resident of Ward 7, said any concerns about the ward need to be brought to the attention of the branch.
“This will help us focus our efforts,” she said.
Algernon Austin, a well-known progressive economist, spoke about his local struggles with violence.
“I used to live in Ward 7 but I moved because someone got shot on my street,” Austin said. “I think the NAACP should fight the National Rifle Association because there are too many guns in our streets.”
Johnson was ready to respond to the concerns of the audience.
“The hardest thing to do is to sit and listen and not respond,” he said. Johnson said NAACP units are active in fighting voter suppression in Alabama with the special election for the U.S. Senate that will take place on Dec. 12 and made a pitch for same day registration and voting as well as advocating compulsory voting, where citizens are required to cast a ballot or face a fine.
He said the organization will emphasize the need for Blacks to vote in mid-term elections in large numbers, not just in presidential years.
He talked about fighting efforts to romanticize slavery and blame Blacks for it in some textbooks in Texas and startled some in the audience about his knowledge of the District. “This community here is slated for re-gentrification,” Johnson, who is from Mississippi, said.”We have issued a call to action and we will commit our time and energy to make this work.”