New Orleans In a provocative, important, and much discussed op-ed in the New York Times, Melissa Perry-Harris, professor at Wake Forest, former television commentator, and widely regarded African-American public intellectual, jumped in feet first and fists swinging into the question of the NAACP’s board’s recent decision to change leadership to set itself on a more dynamic course in this age of Trump and in this challenging and activist time for the black population in America.
Her case rested on three points. One, bemoaned the tediousness of the daily tasks of organization for a far flung, institution like the NAACP with a long and storied history. Another called for more activist and diverse leadership for the organization and in a larger way for the struggle itself. Both of these points warrant serious discussion, and I’ll address them at a later time, but the more powerful and dramatic argument that Harris-Perry makes, which is the flash point for much of the attention it is getting, is her call for a renewed struggle evoking the “bloody years” of the civil rights struggle to be re-engaged now.
And, when she talks about the “bloody years,” this is not just a rhetorical flourish for her. The NAACP has had a mixed history over its 108 years, but she powerfully pulls up evidence of the terrible, racist killings of NAACP leaders, writing:
One night in June 1940, police in Brownsville, Tenn., dragged Elbert Williams from his bed, beat him, shot him in the chest and dumped him in the Hatchie River for the transgressions of helping to form a chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. and trying to register voters. On Christmas Day 1951, a Ku Klux Klan bomb ripped through the bedroom of Harry Moore, the director of the Florida N.A.A.C.P., killing him and his wife, Harriette. In June 1963, the white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith murdered Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the group, in the driveway of his home, in Jackson, Miss.
Make no mistake, Harris-Perry’s call to action goes way past the NAACP, broadly signally a call for more than mere picket lines and protest posters. She is calling for a more visceral, face-to-face, confrontation and direct action which involves organizational and even personal risk. She flatly argues that the NAACP, and by inference, other organizations committed to act for justice, social change, and racial equality, have to step aside or step up. In her words, the NAACP,
… must be ready for a return to the bloody years. It must become radical and expect a time when people will be mocked and potentially even harmed simply for being aligned with it. This will happen only if the organization commits itself to making substantive change that disrupts the balance of power for the most vulnerable.
Harris-Perry is asking everyone to take on some heavy weight now. She’s unabashedly demanding a course correction. This is not a North Carolina professor calling for a two-handed approach, either this or that. This is not a call for simple resistance. This is bold and has brass, so hear it clearly, because she’s really talking to all of us, not just the NAACP, and she’s saying we all “must be ready to return to the bloody years.” We all “must become radical” and be ready to “be mocked and potentially harmed.”
She wants to move past debate. Let’s see who answers the call.