The Baltimore branch of the NAACP has a storied history, and its future trajectory could be changed radically with the organization’s upcoming election in November (the exact date has not been announced as of September 6), when Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, challenges Tessa Hill-Aston for the presidency of the organization.
Witherspoon, 35, a community activist and president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says the Baltimore branch has been, “missing in action,” on too many issues vital to mostly Black, mostly poor communities in Baltimore (for the record, I reached out both to Witherspoon and Hill -Aston for this column, he responded and she did not).
“I think we are at a really, really interesting time in Baltimore, in terms of issues in relationship to gentrification and in terms of the issues in relationship to the upcoming redistricting, which I don’t think we’re talking enough about, in 2020,” Witherspoon said during a phone conversation.
“Because, of course we continue to lose population and when we lose population as a city, that typically means that the African American community will have the potential to lose a legislative district. And a lot of times that has to do really with efforts to further gentrify Baltimore City,” Witherspoon added.
Beyond the issues of gentrification and redistricting, Witherspoon argues the Baltimore branch has been, “completely invisible,” on a litany of high profile issues.
“The NAACP was not involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement in Baltimore City and I think that was a serious problem…the NAACP has the reputation to be able to provide leadership and guidance and I think that’s important, because that was one of the…components as a member of the Black Lives Matter movement that I contend we needed,” Witherspoon said. “We needed to have an entity with the type of credibility and the reputation of the NAACP standing out there with us. And we advocated for very valid and legitimate issues, and when we turned around we never ever saw the NAACP,” he added.
“The NAACP has been completely invisible on the $15/hour minimum wage. How is that possible? When we look at the condition of our communities and the overwhelming amount of poverty and joblessness we experience in our communities, how is it that the city’s chief civil rights organization doesn’t take a position on the $15/hour living wage? That is reprehensible,” he said.
“I live in West Baltimore, I live in Sandtown, right around the corner from where Freddie Gray was killed by the police…and when I go outside my door where I live, I see the interconnectedness between police brutality and people’s rights being violated and vacant and abandoned properties and schools that are struggling and recreation centers hanging on by a thread,” Witherspoon said.
“Other people in Baltimore City are thriving and Black people and poor people and working class people are surviving. We’ve got to begin addressing these socio-economic issues. My interest is nothing personal whatsoever in relationship to the incumbent, it’s just that I believe we must begin to address these socio-economic issues that plague our community and that are really symptomatic of systemic and structural racism,” added Witherspoon alluding to his opposition of Hill-Aston, who first became branch president in November 2010, when she defeated long-time former head G.I. Johnson.
The Baltimore branch was perhaps at the height of its powers from the 1930’s to the 1950’s under the leadership of Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, her daughter Juanita Jackson Mitchell, AFRO editor Dr. Carl Murphy and a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall, among others. That’s when the organization was the force behind Baltimore’s vanguard role in the struggle for civil rights and human rights. Witherspoon acknowledges the branch occupies a much different space on the national stage in 2016.
“The NAACP that we deal with today, pales in comparison to the NAACP of yesterday and we just have to be honest about that,” Witherspoon said.
“But, I think…the NAACP has to be visible, we have to be vocal, we have to be interactively involved and engaged with what’s happening on the ground.”
Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on WEAA 88.9.