LAS VEGAS - Thousands gathered here July 19-23 for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 105th convention. The nation's oldest, largest, and perhaps most widely known civil rights organization convened to address a number of issues, including the need to push back against voter suppression with the crucial 2014 midterm elections quickly approaching.
The main theme of the convention was "All In For Justice and Equality." Yet another, perhaps unofficial, theme of the convention, as addressed by newly elected NAACP President Cornell William Brooks, was if the organization was still relevant and influential in present times. It was clear that Brooks, and all of the leadership of the organization, wanted to emphasize a resounding "YES" response to that question.
Close to 1,500 youth, under the age of 21, attended the convention. An emerging sentiment throughout the festivities, stated often by the leadership, was the need to make sure that the future generation of leaders and fighters in the movement isn't killed off by the increasing gun violence and racial injustice across the nation. ACT-SO (the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) held its awards ceremony at the convention this year. The program, created by the NAACP, was aimed to encourage high academic and cultural achievement amongst high school aged African Americans. There were also workshops geared towards encouraging young people to get involved with civic engagement, know their rights regarding juvenile justice, and avoid the traps of the growing student debt crisis plaguing the nation.
"Empowering women for justice and equality"
The NAACP's committee WIN (Women in NAACP) held a luncheon to highlight women in leadership and the push for female empowerment. With speakers such as NAACP Chair Roslyn Brock, newly elected NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks, and the cast of daytime talk show "The Real," the focus was on the need to empower black women in today's society. WIN's theme is "Open Hearts and Outstretched Hands to Women and Children" and it has volunteer coordinators in seven regions.
Brooks spoke a few words at the luncheon, saying that "No civil rights movement would be complete without the women ... Women are the heart of this organization." Brock spoke on how women made the difference in voter turnout, referring to black women in the 2008 and 2012 elections who voted in higher percentages than any other section of the American electorate.
The all female cast of "The Real" did a panel of questions and answers on issues affecting women of color. The hosts of the show, set to premiere in September, include actress Tamera Mowry-Housley, singer Tamar Braxton, comedian Loni Love, and actresses Jeannie Mai and Adrienne Bailon. The hosts touted the fact that they were one of the few shows on television that had a cast of all women of color. They emphasized that this perspective was needed, because positive and well-rounded images of black women, and other women of color, in mainstream society were lacking.
Presiding over the luncheon, NAACP WIN director Dr. Thelma T. Daley quoted the legendary Maya Angelou, stating, "Women have to develop courage. You're not born with courage, but you develop it ... One way to develop courage is to not entertain company who debase you. Don't laugh at someone who is laughing at you or putting you down. Take offense. When someone says 'I hope you won't be offended,' then you probably will be."
"Litigation alone is not enough to win victories"
The 1954 victory in Brown v. Board of Education was shaped and led by the NAACP. It is no surprise, then, that this convention would hold workshops on Continuing Legal Education (CLE) within the movement. One popular panel in the legal series highlighted the resurgence of "stop and frisk." This is a controversial police tactic, in which cops stop and pat down individuals they deem suspicious. The tactic is accused of racially profiling black and Latino people.
Panelist Alexis Karteron, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said "stop and frisk" was not only happening in the streets, but also in places where people live, such as the lesser known "Operation Clean Halls." In this program landlords enrolled their buildings, putting them under New York Police Department surveillance. This operation resulted in many residents and guests, mainly black and Latino, being harassed, and often arrested, by police on suspicion of criminal activities. Karteron and her team have been a part of the class action lawsuit against the city of New York over this practice that they argue is unconstitutional. The team recently won the suit but is still awaiting implementation of the court ruling. That implementation of court rulings is not immediate underscored the theme of the CLE panels: that litigation alone was not enough to win victories. Panelist and attorney Chauniqua D. Young, who worked on the main "stop and frisk" class action lawsuit, pointed out, "Real work starts after the court rules."
Director of the NAACP's Criminal Justice committee Niaz Kasravi highlighted the organization's campaign against the resurgence of "stop and frisk," which they believe is taking on a different form with the "Broken Window" policies now being pushed under New York Police Chief William Bratton, and the need for national policing standards. Kasravi noted that there are currently no effective racial profiling laws, and no national ban against racial profiling. She stated that those were just some of the demands that the NAACP is working on for the future. Kasravi also announced that the NAACP would be issuing a report this fall that addresses "stop and frisk," and racial profiling in general, on a national level.
Black voter turnout and the fight against voter suppression
A well attended plenary featured a panel on black voter turnout and battling voter suppression in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections. Washington, D.C., journalist and radio show host Roland Martin chaired the panel. A theme throughout the panel was the power of the vote, and just how crucial the midterm elections are. The failure to have a large turnout for the midterm elections in 2010 resulted in a major shift, not in favor of black people, panelists said. Panelist and House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly Stacey Y. Abrams said, "State legislatures are allowing voter suppression." Jotaka Eaddy, NAACP senior director of voting rights, said since 2011, more than 250 voter suppression bills were introduced in 41 states across the country. She also noted that statistics show that voter suppression laws are targeted for states where more blacks and Latinos turn out to vote.
Panelist and CNN political analyst Cornell Belcher said the current dysfunction of Congress was a political strategy to suppress voter turnout. He said there are forces hoping that if voters are dismayed by the ineffectiveness of government, then they won't turn out to vote. Belcher said information is a "luxury," and those who know need to help those who don't by getting the information out.
Panelist Dr. William J. Barber, one of the leaders of North Carolina's Moral Mondays movement, said people needed to connect the dots and build coalitions. He said, "Right extremism is undermining everyone's civil rights. Not just black people." State legislator Abrams closed by saying, "It is immoral to vote alone. Take someone with you to the polls." NAACP's Eaddy urged the audience to work to expand rights as well as win back those under attack. She said, "We cannot afford to play checkers in the middle of a chess game."
"These are no ordinary times"
Brooks, who was elected to lead the NAACP this past June, addressed the convention on the question he stated he was asked often: Is the NAACP was still a relevant organization? Brooks said the question was "wearisome, not worrisome." The president drew from the organization's history. When the choice is between "irrelevancy or revolution," he said, the NAACP has always chosen the path of revolution, and this time would be no different. Brooks said revolution is a "time honored tradition," and the NAACP would follow suit. He called for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and mult- generational NAACP.
Brooks said what the NAACP stands for is good enough for the union halls, and the NAACP, "from the beginning, has always been about the rank-and-file." These are no ordinary times, he said, but rather "NAACP time." After a rousing recount of the history of the organization and the battles it is currently involved in, Brooks confessed that the only answer he could give to critics who questioned the relevancy of the NAACP was an incredulous, "Are you serious?"
"Show up, rise up, and turn up"
Brock, the youngest person ever to be elected to serve as chair of the NAACP's national board of directors and only the fourth woman to do so in the NAACP's 105-year history, reemphasized the theme of the convention, "All In For Justice and Equality," in her keynote. She said half-hearted measures would not solve "the crises of our time."
"Victory won't come easy and it doesn't come cheap! To serve the present age, we have to go beyond the episodic and reactive responses to assaults on justice. The pressure keeps coming, but we must prevail. For too long we have waited on someone or something to ignite our fire and passion. But now we must do as the young people; Show up, rise up and turn up!"
Brock said even after the murder of Trayvon Martin, "stand your ground" laws are still in place, leaving black communities vulnerable to violence. She also brought up gender-based violence that is suffered by women from "Nigeria to Nevada." She pointed out that even with the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, for the 270 Nigerian girls kidnapped, the girls have still not been returned. She said, "A tweet is no substitute for a sustained world-wide movement to demand respect for human rights, particularly the rights of girls and women!"
Brock also stressed the need to embrace the crisis in Detroit, referring to the thousands of residents who have had their water turned off by the city. She called the crisis a "slow motion disaster" that is a shame to America.
The chairman also assured the audience that the NAACP was on the case in dealing with the death of Eric Garner. Garner was an African American man who recently lost his life after an NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold - a banned maneuver. She said, "The officer's killing of Mr. Garner is a matter for a criminal investigation, and the NY State Conference NAACP will not let it be swept under the rug or reduced to an internal investigation."
Brock brought up the need to restore the Voting Rights Act, and the need to educate "all Americans about the power of their vote."
She closed her address saying, "The survival of our republic depends on our success. Our agenda is essential. It is about the fundamental building blocks of a decent and thriving society. All people-need living wage jobs, affordable quality health care, excellent schools, a clean environment, safe neighborhoods, and a truly fair justice system... Let us go forth from this warm city in the desert burning with determination to make this year the year that we went 'all in for justice and equality.' Courage must not skip this generation!"
Photo: Chauncey K. Robinson/PW