LOS ANGELES – Thousands of people gathered here July 25 to hear NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous and other speakers address the struggles of African Americans in the United States at the organization’s 102nd convention.
African Americans have made great strides since the founding, 102 years ago, of the NAACP, and especially since the modern-day civil rights movement, Jealous said, but it’s not over yet.
“Ladies and gentlemen, these are the best of times and-if we are honest with ourselves, in too many places-they are the worst of times. We have our first black president. We have our first black female CEO of a fortune 500 company. Oprah owns a TV network. Tyler Perry owns movie studios. And every city has its resident black millionaires. And we are duly proud of all of them,” he said.
“And yet at the same time poverty is at depression-era levels. Home ownership is down. Foreclosures are up. HIV rates among black and brown kids are way too high. And high school graduate rates are way too low.”
Jealous spoke about the recent union-busting and voter suppression legislation that have plagued many states across the nation recently.
The ability to vote is of fundamental importance, Jealous said, upon which all other rights rest.
He spoke specifically on states’ laws that limit early voting, eliminate same-day voter registration and implement specialized voter ID cards for people- likening these measures to a new Jim Crow poll tax.
But, he added, disenfranchising ex-felons is Jim Crow.
“All of it is under attack: the right to organize, the right to choose, the right for immigrants in this country to be treated with basic human respect, the right for people to have a fair shot at employment and business opportunities, and event the right to vote itself. And let us be very clear that that last right, the right to vote, is the right upon which all of our rights are leveraged,” he said.
“In Florida this year, the Republican Governor promoted and signed a new order that requires five to seven year mandatory waiting period for formerly incarcerated persons voting rights to be restored. While voter ID and registration ID are like Jim Crow, ex-felon disenfranchisement laws are Jim Crow,” Jealous said.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in Feb. 12, 1909 as a response to the lynching of African Americans and the 1908 race riot in Springfield, Ill., the resting place of President Abraham Lincoln. Sixty people, many white liberals with abolitionist roots, signed a call for action on racial justice. Seven of the signers were African American, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell and W.E.B. Du Bois. The group’s founding mission was to ensure “political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of United States and eliminate race prejudice.”
In another powerful speech, veteran civil rights attorney Leo Branton, Jr. linked racism with political oppression and anti-communism.
Judge Greg Mathis, founder of the Prisoner Empowerment Education and Respect Initiative and NACCP board member, introduced Branton, who has been practicing law for 62 years, taking many politically and racially charged cases, including defending members of the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party. Perhaps his most famous case was successfully defending then-CPUSA member and activist Angela Davis.
“The 50s were dominated by fear created by the Un-American Activities Committee and the fear of communism throughout the United States and the attack on everyone who believed in civil liberties by calling them communist or communist sympathizers,” Branton said.
“This period was known as McCarthy era: when the country was always put in fear that the Un-American Activities Committee who called people before the committee to ask them whether or not they were then or have ever been a members of the Communist Party,” he said.
He went out to site the numerous repercussions caused by the Committee, how people lost their jobs through being blacklisted, went to jail, and the overall damage caused to democracy.
Branton himself was blacklisted. But it was not by an employer or government agency. The Los Angeles Chapter of the NAACP blacklisted him by denying him to a convention many years ago because of his being “too close to the Communist Party.”
“The NAACP refused to accept me as a delegate to that convention. I became estranged from the NAACP-in Los Angeles-and remained estranged from them even until today,” Branton said.
Immediately after his speech, Jealous apologized to Branton, and the crowd gave Branton a standing ovation.
Photo: Ben Jealous addresses the convention. Luis Rivas/PW