NAACP convention: Freedom under fire

In his keynote speech to the NAACP convention, held in Houston July 7-11, President Kweisi Mfume reminded the 6,000 delegates that “both war and recession have traditionally correlated into diminished civil rights for the masses of Black, Latino and Asian Americans.”

Mfume said delegates need not apologize for coming to Houston to “continue our demand for fairness on the part of those who interpret the law of the land. Our fight is to ensure a system of government that affirmatively affords the basic guarantees of citizenship to everyone.”

In explaining the convention theme of “Freedom under fire,” Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP board, told reporters: “You see widening economic inequality, [with] the gap between rich and poor growing larger, not smaller, and you see public opinion surveys in which large majorities of whites claim that discrimination isn’t a problem – that’s freedom under fire.”

The 2002 elections were high on the convention’s “to do” list. As part of their campaign to overhaul election laws at the state level, the convention released a 94-page report that found most states had made little progress in overhauling their election systems since the 2000 elections, in which the ballots of hundreds of thousands of minority voters were uncounted.

Although he sent a letter to the convention, President Bush declined an invitation to attend, a move that drew sharp criticism from both Mfume and Bond. “You can’t be president of all the people when you only want to be president for some of the people,” Mfume said, while Bond added: “We have a president who owes his election more to a dynasty than to democracy.” Bush won only 9 percent of the Black vote in 2000 and many delegates believe that without the effective disenfranchisement of many Black voters in Florida, Al Gore would be president.

Bond said that with the election George W. Bush, representatives of what he called a “right wing conspiracy” have ascended to unprecedented positions of power within the federal government. “There is an even wider conspiracy than this – an interlocking network of funders, groups, and activists,” Bond said. “[who] are the money, the motivation, and the movement behind vouchers, the legal assault on affirmative action, and other remedies for discrimination and attacks on equity everywhere.”

In his remarks to the convention, Bond said Black people “know a lot about terrorism. Slavery was terrorism, segregation was terrorism. The bombing of four little girls in a [Birmingham] Sunday school was terrorism. And we know that the surest defense against terrorism is affirmation of America’s basic values.”

Bond pointed to the experience of W. E. B. DuBois, a founder of the NAACP, who, he said, got “swept up in the emotionalism and passion that patriotism sometimes brings, [and] asked Black people to quiet our voices and quash our complaints. ‘We will forget our special grievances,’ [DuBois] said, ‘and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.’”

“The criticism he faced was immediate and loud,” Bond said, adding that DuBois “quickly realized his call for a retreat from our rights was terribly wrong. He understood then – as we must today – that when wars are fought to save democracy, the first casualty is usually democracy itself.”

So, he said, the NAACP, “both because of and in spite of,” the war against terrorism, will insist on its right to dissent and to petition for a redress of grievances. “To do otherwise would be a denial of the democracy we are defending [and] a repudiation of the rights we revere.”

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