Melissa Harris-Perry’s Critique of the NAACP and Her Call for the “Bloody Years”

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.

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Marching on Washington for Jobs and Justice

Who-and-How-e1376425067576New Orleans   We commemorate lots of things in the United States like the Civil War and the Declaration of Independence, so it is a good thing to see real respect given and attention paid to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in 1963.  There’s a nice feeling to the interviews in the paper from people we know who were swept up and onto the buses 50 years ago and their ability to share the experience.  Marc Morial, the head of the Urban League and former Mayor of New Orleans, wrote a touching op-ed piece in one of my hometown papers of remembrance of his father’s role and the rallies and marches in New Orleans at that time.  Tellingly he used his space to also revisit the issues of the original march and express his revulsion that Louisiana’s radical rightwing governor, Bobbie Jindal, has refused to allow the expansion of Medicaid to 400,000 low income citizens.

            It is good for us to be reminded of how much is undone and how much of what was at issue 50 years ago has never been addressed.  I’ve been reading March on Washington:  Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights by William P. Jones.  Maybe there are some errors here and there in the book, but Jones does a service in reminding how important African-American labor leaders were in the civil rights lexicon and in organizing the great march, even though they are often neglected.  Given the polarity of these political times and the attack of the right on various organizations like Planned Parenthood and ACORN, it has been valuable to remember with Jones that during that period the NAACP was banned  by law or court injunctions “from operating in Louisiana, Alabama, Virginia, and Texas.  Florida had launched a $50,000 investigation into communist activities of the NAACP and South Carolina had barred teachers from joining the group.   As a result the NAACP had lost 226 branches and nearly half it membership in the South and was forced to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees just to survive.”  This is hard work. Perhaps people forget how hard, even though that is the nature of the struggle and the price of justice, so the reminders are good that simply put, not enough is being done.

            Controversially, radio host and commentator Tavis Smiley, has called the administration and President Obama “weak” and “timid” on the very issues that Dr. King addressed.  The Times quotes him in an interview saying:

“If you’re not going to address racism, if you’re not going to address poverty, if you’re not going to address militarism, if you’re going to dance around all three of them, then you’re not doing justice to Dr. King and you might as well stay home.” 

Tough talk, but also the kind of talk that helped move the country 50 years ago when President Kennedy was trying to talk labor and civil rights leaders into cancelling the march.  Rev. Al Sharpton makes an excellent point that Obama does not need to dream, but as President needs “to lead.”

I find myself packing for Baltimore this week to help moderate the founding of a coalition of groups that began organizing with the inspiration of King’s speech as their motivation to broaden community organizing.   Initially they even called themselves the ESIMORP Network which is a mouthful, but honored King’s speech as PROMISE spelled backwards.  Now they are naming themselves CROP, but the real point of their work and my being there is easy to understand: the job is undone and the work has to continue.   We have to all keep marching!

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