Thursday, December 9, 2010

NAACP alienates civil rights leaders in Milwaukee

The behavior of the NAACP’s national office in a contentious branch election has left a sour taste in the mouths of much of Milwaukee’s civil rights leadership, which was rooting for the reform slate, the side that eventually won.

Victory was sweet, but not enough to negate the sourness – raising the question of how well will the NAACP’s Baltimore headquarters and the new Milwaukee board relate.

James Hall
Branch President-Elect James Hall, a civil rights attorney, says he’s looking “forward to a positive, constructive” relationship with the national office.

But others involved in the movement to reform the branch cite a continuing sore point: The national office went berserk with suspensions, ousting from the organization eight people in the reform camp. Members of that camp find it hard to forgive and forget while their comrades in struggle remain suspended. Some suspensions are for three years; others are indefinite.

The suspensions are in fact astounding. Kicked out were revered stalwarts of Milwaukee’s black community. The most illustrious is perhaps Lauri Wynn, who in 1973 became the first African American to head the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s umbrella teachers union. Before that, she was on the front lines of the struggle to desegregate Milwaukee’s schools. And in 1983 she became an aide to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl.

A picket line protested the suspension of Milwaukee NAACP
before voting took place across the street.
Among the other prominent evictees are Wallace White, chair of the Milwaukee African American Chamber of Commerce, vice chair of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage Commission and CEO of a business consulting firm, and Elmer Anderson, former second-in-command at the Milwaukee Urban League and a former administrator at the Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Their crime? Publicly speaking out against the administration of the local branch.

“Outrageous” and “incredible” was how former Milwaukee Alderman Fred Gordon, a lawyer, described the behavior of the national office, adding, “I think it sucks.”

Picketers end their demonstration with a prayer.
Interviewed on Nov. 20 on his way inside Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church to vote, Gordon theorized that the national office behaved the way it did because “the current NAACP leadership and the branch have been very close.” He noted that a few years back the branch had hosted the national conference, which, he said, had made money for the NAACP.

Frank Atwater, who formerly headed agencies serving the black community, found particularly incredible the suspension of Wynn. “She’s an icon of the community,” he said.

The national office has not yet responded to my request to give its side of the story.

Widespread discontent about the performance of the branch led to the movement to reform it. A pivotal date in the drama was Sept. 18, when, according to an e-mail message from Hall to his supporters, a branch membership meeting “was improperly adjourned and the lights were turned out and police summoned to disburse approximately 150 members assembled to elect a nominating committee and conduct other business.”

About 50 people re-assembled across the street in a restaurant parking lot and put together a nominating committee. It was members of that committee who got suspensions, which made them ineligible to vote. Representatives of the national office came in and conducted the election instead.

Gloria Gilmer – an educator, civic leader and mathematician – described that meeting as the turning point in that it showed many in attendance how bad the branch leadership was.

Jerry Ann Hamilton, branch president for 10 years, had chosen not to run again and picked her second-in-command, activist and businessman Wendell Harris, to succeed her.

The reform camp had accused the incumbent leadership of mismanagement of funds, nepotism, and failure to deal effectively with a complex of problems crushing the black community, such as high poverty and unemployment rates. That camp has noted that the branch has gone without a financial audit for 10 years.

Hundreds turned out for the election. Many were turned away because, even though they vowed they had paid memberships, NAACP officials could not find their names in their records. Some went home to get proof of membership and returned. Among them was Atwater, who came back with a cancelled check for his membership dues and was allowed to vote. The news media was not allowed inside the church.

Almost everyone appeared to be under the impression that they could run in, vote and leave. But such was not the case. Nominations took place first and the voting procedures were explained. The wait was a couple of hours and more for some voters. A woman who left without casting a ballot said she couldn’t wait any longer. She had a wedding to attend.

"I would say a good 100 people left without voting because they had other plans,” commented Jenelle Elder-Green, an NAACP member who once handled public relations for the Milwaukee Public Schools. “It really is unfair. People were denied the right to vote. If that had happened in any other election, the NAACP would be filing a lawsuit”

Notable about this whole episode is the passion the reformers show for the NAACP.  They could have just given up on the organization and attempted to form an alternate group. But they believe in the NAACP, or at least the ideals of the NAACP. Mary Glass, a suspended member, talks about restoring the NAACP brand, making the organization true to its purpose – a notion echoed by other reformers.

Gilmer said, “I think what happened here can be a resurgence of the NAACP.” She stressed she was referring to the national organization, not just the Milwaukee branch. Reformers have emerged at other troubled branches, she said, and the national office, to judge by its attempts to tamp down reform in Milwaukee, has also lost its way.

Photos by Gregory Stanford

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