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Trayvon Martin and Voting Rights Dominate Orlando Meetings

Under the banner “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the NAACP convened its 104th convention in Orlando, Florida. “The state of the NAACP is strong,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous told the more than 3,000 delegates, members and observers who gathered at the first opening plenary. After the deep slough the organization hit in the mid-1990s, and the years of holding on and slight growth after the turn of the century, the membership has grown sharply four years in a row.  Jealous recited the facts: 132,000 people wrote contribution checks to the NAACP over the last year. Five years ago the NAACP had 174,000 on-line activists. Now there are more than one million—larger than any other civil rights organization. In 2008 the NAACP registered 124,000 voters. In 2012, the association registered 374,553 voters, and they turned out more than 1.2 million people to the polls last year. And the NAACP now has a registered voter database operation in 600 locales.


The NAACP has also stepped-up grass roots activism. In Mississippi, the state conference is working closely with the UAW to organize the 3,000 workers at the Nissan auto plant in Canton.  In North Carolina, the state conference is leading a broad-based coalition, the Historic Thousands on Jones Street, and its Moral Monday protests have drawn thousands in opposition to new regressive laws passed in the state legislature.  Hundreds have been arrested in non-violent protests.

The NAACP is also in the middle of an historic generational change in leaders, as new younger men and women step forward to take the place of the generation bearing the battle scars of the 1950s and 1960s.  President Benjamin Jealous described himself as a member of the “Rodney King generation,” those who found their social consciousness and activism in the wake of that brutal 1991 police beating in Los Angeles.  The Chair of the Board of Directors Roslyn Brock is the youngest person to ever hold that position.  The dynamic state conference presidents, Rev. William Barber in North Carolina and Derrick Johnson in Mississippi, are both in their 40s. The regional staff and a number of the staff at headquarters similarly have little grey in their hair.

The generational change is uneven and incomplete, however, and a number of local branches and state conferences retain presidents who have been elected and re-elected year after year. The organization as a whole, however, is self-conscious of the need to make a turn towards youth in the 21st century.

There were plenary session discussions and well-attended workshops on multiple issues.  Haitian President Michel Martelly addressed the convention. Secretary of Health and Human services Kathleen Sebelius was well-received and described a government website, where up to date information on insurance, Medicare and the new law can be had. A labor luncheon sponsored by the United Auto Workers was well-attended by labor activists and NAACP members, who were so engaged talking with each other that sometimes the speaker at the podium could barely be heard.  Workshops and plenary discussion on legislation and lobbying, women in the NAACP, and continuing legal education were well attended and vigorous.

The issues that dominated the platform and attendees’ interest, however, were voting rights and the recent jury decision in the Trayvon Martin case.

At one plenary session, Attorney General Eric Holder described the Supreme Court’s June ruling on the Voting Rights Act as a “deeply flawed decision.”  Holder asked “congress to consider new legislation” to insure voting rights and open access to the ballot box.  While he cited past support by Republican Party officeholders, it is the opinion of this reporter that measuring the current level of support for Voting Rights legislation will be one barometer of how far Republican Party politicians have drifted into the ranks of anti-democratic, anti-civil rights bigotry.

The Attorney General said that the Justice Department had an open investigation into George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, but he did not render a decision as to whether or not the Justice Department would file civil rights charges against Zimmerman.  He did say to the convention that we should “stand our ground,” and insure that laws were passed to “reduce violence.” Stand Our Ground was a mantra that was oft-repeated during the convention.

Radio talk shows hosts Mark Thompson and Joe Madison both spoke in plenary session about the Trayvon Martin case and its multiple meanings.  The large contingent of young people was invariably decked in “Justice for Trayvon” tee-shirts and buttons.  And favorable comment was often made about the non-violent protests occurring across the country in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict.  In Tallahassee, for example, young people were sitting in at the governor’s office in protest against the state’s Stand Your Ground law.

The NAACP’s strong showing in Orlando, however, occurs during a period of great challenge.  As President Jealous noted, this generation is “the most incarcerated generation in history.”  And he acknowledged that history seemed to be “moving in both directions at once.”  Indeed, a realistic appraisal would conclude that holding on to the gains of the past might prove to be more difficult than winning new gains in the near future.  In any case, the strength of the NAACP should be cause for celebration by any human rights and civil rights advocate.

Leonard Zeskind attended the NAACP convention as a voting delegate.

Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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