VOL. 128 | NO. 17 | Friday, January 25, 2013
Leading in New Times
By Bill Dries
Keith Norman has heard the discussions about the generation gap and the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, the NAACP.
Keith Norman, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church-Broad, became president of the Memphis branch NAACP earlier this month. He succeeds Warner Dickerson, whose 11-year tenure as president is the longest in the history of the chapter.
(Photo: Bill Dries)
For decades, supporters and critics of the NAACP have talked about whether an organization founded at the turn of the 20th century with a strategy of fighting inequality in the courts in the 1950s and 1960s is relevant to current times and young adults in their 20s.
“I don’t believe it is as prevalent as many think that it is,” Norman said of the generation gap. “The NAACP is not only reaching young people now, but reaching young people of all colors.”
Norman, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church-Broad, became president of the Memphis branch NAACP in January.
He succeeds Warner Dickerson, whose 11-year tenure as president is the longest in the history of the chapter.
“He really served at a time where the branch was in transition,” Norman said of Dickerson. “He saw us through some very strong executive directors, moving from a time when we had very prominent leaders who were always on the national scene as well as the local scene making changes for civil rights.”
The executive secretary and directors had longer tenures than Memphis branch presidents during the civil rights movement.
Maxine Smith was executive secretary from 1958 to her retirement in 1995.
NAACP headquarters on Vance Avenue is named the Jesse Turner Freedom House after the late Shelby County Commissioner who was national treasurer of the civil rights organization.
Norman said most of the attendees at a weekend cleanup around the headquarters were in their 20s.
“That’s why we are talking about issues now like health care; that affects every age group. We’re talking about economic sustainability; that is a strong issue that will affect many generations,” Norman said. “We’re talking about education when it comes to borrowing and lending because we don’t want to see a generation go to college and come out with such great debt that they can’t afford to really accept a career that doesn’t pay a certain amount of money.”
Norman is a native Memphian and graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta. He became pastor of First Baptist in 1999 and has served as Shelby County Democratic Party chairman.
The NAACP is a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse candidates.
“We plan to make sure that our voice is being heard in relevant and new ways.”
“But at the same time, it seems like our work is often defined by those who are in power,” Norman was quick to add. “When they draw the line, we find where our work really is. When you take a certain stance to disenfranchise in any way, whether it be along party lines, racial lines or gender and equity lines, we have to make sure justice is there for all.”
The Memphis branch was among the groups that opposed the state’s photo voter identification law and backed the city of Memphis in the court fight to have photo library cards accepted as valid identification under the law.
“We plan to make sure that our voice is being heard in relevant and new ways. Voter empowerment will always be a part of the work of the NAACP,” Norman said of the national and local organizations. “We want to also have the ability to sit down at the table to negotiate and mediate and make change. I don’t think that all change has to come about through struggle and through fight. … There’s always a struggle for power.”
The Memphis branch – established in 1917 and the largest branch in the South within two years – is also one of the most storied NAACP branches.
It was founded after NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson came to the city to investigate the lynching of Ell Persons in the midst of a national resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Robert Church Jr., founder of the local Republican Party, was among the organizers of the branch.
Memphis was very much an NAACP town during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Because of that, Memphis was a staging ground for such historic chapters of the movement as James Meredith’s 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi and the Freedom Summer voter registration effort in Mississippi two years later.
The Memphis branch negotiated with city leaders of the time over racial integration of public facilities and retail locations, and the Memphis branch fought for decades in Memphis federal court for the integration of Memphis schools, including the ruling that led to court-ordered busing in the 1970s.