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VOL. 132 | NO. 17 | Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Malone Takes Reins, Plans Changes At Memphis Branch NAACP

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis branch of the NAACP has one full-time employee and is looking for a new executive director in what amounts to a major overhaul of the chapter as it marks its centennial year.

Former Shelby County commissioner Deidre Malone is the new president of the Memphis Branch NAACP, which marks its centennial this year. Malone is broadening the reach of the civil rights organization to fight the perception that it is an aging, less active organization.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The new president of the Memphis branch of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization told a group of 50 members Sunday, Jan. 22, that she is moving to rebuild and rebrand the chapter.

“I think we are perceived, because we are so old, as an antiquated organization that lacks relevancy,” Deidre Malone told the group at Mount Olive Cathedral CME Church. “But we’re very relevant and the Memphis community is going to see that. If they haven’t seen it before they are going to see it now.”

Malone, a former Shelby County commissioner who ran for Shelby County mayor unsuccessfully in 2010 and 2014, succeeds Rev. Keith Norman as president of the organization. As Norman’s term ended, long-time NAACP executive director Madeleine Taylor announced her retirement.

Malone said the branch hopes to name a new executive director in June at its major fundraiser, the annual Freedom Fund dinner.

That same month, the organization will mark its centennial.

The Memphis Branch NAACP was founded in 1917 after the May lynching of Ell Persons, who was burned alive as a crowd estimated at 5,000 people watched. James Weldon Johnson, of the national NAACP office, came to Memphis to investigate the incident and met with political leader Robert Church Jr. Church and other black political and business leaders established the Memphis chapter that by the 1960s represented the city’s black political establishment.

Malone was sworn in as president of the local NAACP organization Sunday with a new local committee that includes activists from recent Black Lives Matter protests including Tami Sawyer and Rev. Earle Fisher.

Sawyer was involved in some of the city’s first BLM protests in 2014 and last year mounted an insurgent challenge in the August primaries to Democratic state Rep. John Deberry.

Fisher, the pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, has been involved in BLM protests and the Coalition of Concerned Citizens group that emerged after the July 10 protest that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge.

He is also among the plaintiffs in a recent federal lawsuit challenging methods used by the Memphis Police Department and Graceland to separate those attending Graceland’s annual candlelight vigil from those protesting the vigil – a protest called for by the coalition.

Malone participated in Saturday’s Memphis Women’s March Downtown, a demonstration that along with the July bridge protest, reflects “the activism that currently exists in our community now,” she said.

“Some things have changed, but some things remain the same when it comes to how uncomfortable we are when we are discussing race and racism in our community,” Malone told the group. “It will only change with direct and honest dialogue and our branch will lead that discussion.”

Like Saturday’s march, there were plenty of references to President Donald Trump at Sunday’s NAACP meeting.

“You are here at a very critical time,” said state Rep. Johnnie Turner, a former Memphis Branch NAACP executive director whose involvement in the organization dates back to the early 1960s. “These are the times when we are needed most.”

The NAACP does not make political endorsements or contributions. But it has never held its tongue when assessing the actions of a particular president or his administration – Democratic or Republican.

Turner said Trump has “threatened to dismantle many of the right we have won.”

“Do you know what kind of power we have in this room?” she asked. “This is a new day for a new fight.”

Malone says the new activism represented by Sawyer, Fisher and others meshes well with her plans for the NAACP and its history.

“I think that makes all of the difference in the world because we are the largest grass-roots civil rights organization in the country and we’re the largest branch in Tennessee,” Malone said. “Sometimes we don’t act like it, but we’re going to start acting like it.”

She also said the group has to balance its corporate sponsors with a return to black-owned businesses and churches.

“As much as we appreciate our corporate sponsors, our corporate partners, our African-American businesses and churches have been the cornerstone and at one time the backbone of our community,” she said. “We need them to come back to the NAACP and support our programs now more than ever. … I do believe that in the African-American community there is the perception that we don’t need African-American businesses supporting our effort, African-American churches supporting our effort – but we do.”

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