I attended an NAACP meeting for the first time about a year ago, 107 years after W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and the original “founding forty” convened in New York. They had come together in 1909 partly to mark Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday, but largely because black Americans lived in terror, as lynching was the law of much of the land.
But this column isn’t a history lesson. I write partly in response to recent criticism calling the NAACP “irrelevant,” particularly in a New York Times op-ed by North Carolina’s and Wake Forest’s Melissa Harris-Perry. But largely I write to shed a little light on what the NAACP does in your local communities, right under your noses, typically unnoticed.
The North Carolina Conference of the NAACP has received copious attention due to the Moral Marches and Moral Mondays. But most people don’t realize that the state conference consists of more local adult branches and youth and college divisions than there are counties (100) in North Carolina. Orange and Durham counties have three each, while Wake County has half a dozen alone. Google your county or city, and you’re likely to find one. That’s how I found mine.
The Chapel Hill/Carrboro branch, like others, holds monthly meetings, which are open to anyone. (Dear reporters, it’d be a great place to find story ideas, by the way.) The first time I attended was the week Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively, and five police officers were gunned down in Dallas. I walked into the Rogers Road Community Center unsure of what to expect, wanting to hear my neighbors’ concerns. Somewhat to my surprise, the string of incidents dominating national news was barely mentioned. The branch had more immediate concerns on its agenda.
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What I heard instead were committee reports and discussions on workplace discrimination actions, environmental injustices, and pitfalls locating affordable housing. I listened to how new data proving implicit bias in local traffic stops were altering police policies. I was so struck by what I learned about issues all around me, and the faces from my community advocating those issues, that I returned the next month. Then I paid $32 to become a member.
At my second meeting, two candidates for district court judge came to pitch for votes. A man spoke up. He wanted them to know that black people were tired of only seeing judges in court, police when called, and teachers at school. They wanted the folks who wield so much influence in their lives to care about what their lives are like. A couple of months later at a forum on race and policing, the eventual winning candidate was seated in the row in front of me.
So far, I’ve mostly listened. I’ve attended some rallies and demonstrations. Recently, I joined my branch’s criminal justice and political action committees. How much you do is up to you.
But the leaders in these branches are standing guard in your communities, whether you know or not, for equality and justice. For all people. They tell the decision-makers in our towns, cities, and counties not to forget the citizens who can’t afford influence. They keep school boards on alert for unfair disciplinary practices, advocate for aggrieved workers, hold educational forums and movie screenings, and push local politicians to invest dollars in neglected neighborhoods. They’re there to remind power, so power doesn’t forget.
Progressive citizens need to do more in 2017 than yelling on Facebook. There are more ways to get involved today than ever. But you could do much worse than the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the nation, the group that helped America gain the Anti-Lynching Bill and Voting Rights Act, and has counted Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Medgar Evers as members.
Even if all you do is come and listen, then come and listen. More people need to listen. Liberals included.
Oh, and one more thing. I am white, by the way. And at this point, I feel I should address a question white readers might have. The answer is this: Much of the membership is white too. It was that way back in 1909 in New York City as well. And the struggle continues.
Mike Ogle has written for the New York Times, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and Washington Post, and has taught at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. He is writing a book about a forgotten racial murder at UNC.