Healthcare, voter identification laws, environmental injustice and prison and bail reform were all topics that took the spotlight during the 108th NAACP Conference in Baltimore, which concluded July 26.

Lawmakers joined with activists and concerned citizens from around the country to discuss the state of  Black America and actions needed to make progress on the many issues negatively impacting communities of color and low-income families.

Eric Holder denounced the Trump administration’s efforts to change, and possibly suppress, voter registration at the NAACP national convention in Baltimore. (Courtesy photo)

The conference came at a time of transition for the organization, which has had two presidents and a newly named interim president in the last five years.

“This is a crucial time for the NAACP. We cannot play the old games the old way any longer. We must leverage who we are,” Derrick Johnson, the recently appointed interim president, said at the conference. “Fifty-two percent of African Americans live in the south. The worst policies are germinating from the South. If we do what we are supposed to do in Georgia alone, we change the tide.”

Former Attorney General Eric Holder voiced the same concern for American voters and the wave of restrictive laws that have made it harder to vote in a time where technology and common sense should be making it easier.

Holder hammered politicians and the 45th president himself for making claims that more than three million people voted illegally in the 2016 election that still left the country under the control of a “fact-challenged zealot.”

“No such widespread schemes have ever been detected,” said Holder, in regards to the “mistaken belief in voter fraud” being used by proponents to justify stricter voter identification laws.

“Voter fraud did not become an issue in North Carolina- as in other places- until people of color started to cast ballots in record numbers. That became an item of great urgency with emergence of the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama.”

Holder said at the heart of the voter identification laws being passed are people who decided “If you can’t beat them- change the rules.”

The former attorney general cited places like North Carolina, which decided to do away with their automatic registration of all high school students within a year of the legal voting age. He also spoke about Texas, where a gun holder can vote with their license to carry a handgun from the Texas Department of Public Safety, but students who attend state universities can’t vote by simply showing their college photo identification card. Holder called for automatic voter registration nationwide, which he said would add upwards of 50 million voters to the list of people able to cast a vote.

Aside from voter registration, the many forums and panel discussions also focused on reforming the criminal justice system.

Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois expressed disgust with the private prison industry that is currently making money hand over first from the mass incarceration of Black and Brown bodies. And Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala stood by her controversial decision to not seek another death penalty, imploring others to do the same.

From the bail system to the mandatory minimum sentences handed down, senators from across the country called for a major overhaul of the legal process set in motion with the slapping of cuffs to wrist.

“Is it not an injustice that the person who can pay to get out of jail gets out for the same offense- but the person who can’t pay to get out of jail sits in jail with all of these other residual consequences? That is wrong!” said California Senator Kamala Harris. “It is not only about criminal justice reform, this is also about economic justice because the person who can pay gets out. That doesn’t make sense in terms of public safety.”

During the same NAACP Legislative and Federal Public Policy Forum that featured Duckworth, Harris, Sanders, and a several other lawmakers, California Representative Nanette Barragan called attention to the health disparities that will continue to grow should the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare be repealed. She also talked about the trend of environmental injustice that is negatively affecting communities of color.

Though the conference was jam-packed with discussions on important issues, there was still time to have fun, give honor where due, and celebrate the accomplishments of those leading the fight for justice.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby of Maryland, and Aramis Ayala, State Attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit of Florida, were both recognized as being “Champions of Justice” at the luncheon honoring the legacy of Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. The NAACP also screened three movies- including the film “Marshall,” a film about Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice, set for release in October.

Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer