VOL. 10 | NO. 25 | Saturday, June 17, 2017
By Bill Dries
Memphis Branch NAACP officers Tami Sawyer, left, Deidre Malone and Earle Fisher stand in front of the iconic “I Am A Man” mural on South Main Street. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
During a visit to Memphis in April, Andrew Young was talking with reporters about his lengthy public history – being part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle, a congressman, mayor of Atlanta, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. It was as he talked about King’s death in Memphis that Young, without any prompting, talked about a trio of Memphis attorneys – Benjamin Hooks, Russell Sugarmon and A. W. Willis – that were the key to his and King’s efforts to get things done in Memphis and the surrounding region.
“I thought they had this state under control and they got along good with the governor and they got along good with both parties,” he said of the trio. “Whoever was in the White House, they were represented.”
The trio were leaders and attorneys of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“He had us coming and going,” Young said of Hooks in particular. “Giving us spiritual, political and economic leadership. It broke down when they started running for office and that’s the reason I didn’t want to run for office.”
Young’s memory and political verdict at age 85 is testimony to the NAACP’s role as not only the nation’s oldest civil rights organization but the institution that embodied the African-American political establishment in a city whose most colorful political chapters are about vivid, solitary figures outside such establishment groups – black or white.
Young’s memory also indicates just how un-monolithic the city’s racial majority can be, especially on decisions of strategy.
“One of the misnomers that exists with the NAACP is that one voice can speak for all African-Americans. And that’s just not true,” said Keith Norman, immediate past president of the Memphis Branch NAACP. “We are a very diverse community. There are pockets of wealth as well as pockets of poverty. There’s the very well-educated and the not-so-well educated. And all of our desires are not 100 percent alike.”
At 100 years old, the Memphis Branch NAACP is the oldest local civil rights organization by age, but there are questions about its relevance nationally and politically. Those questions aren’t new. They are recurring.
And now a new era of protests, with a new generation of protesters and organizers, has heightened the questions of relevance.
“Do we still have the kind of stature in the community we used to have in the 1960s? No we don’t,” said Deidre Malone, who became president of the Memphis branch in January. “But do we have the ability to get back there? I believe we do and I believe we are working on it.”
The former Shelby County commissioner and two-time candidate for Shelby County mayor was active in the NAACP for years before becoming the president. When she became president, she named a board or cabinet that included not only veteran NAACP leaders but some leaders active in Black Lives Matter and other protest movements that have been very active in the last year.
Malone went to them with an invitation.
“Come on in to the oldest grassroots civil rights organization and let’s leverage those relationships that you have with the gravitas that we currently have as an organization and what a powerful combination that could be,” is how she described the pitch.
Tami Sawyer, who organized the city’s first Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 and has been active in other causes including education reform and most recently removing Confederate monuments from city parks, took Malone up on the offer.
“I felt that I was able to communicate with her and that she was more open to bridging the generational gap,” Sawyer said. “Just knowing what the NAACP means to our community historically, I don’t want to see it fade out.”
Also on the NAACP board is Earle J. Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church who also has been active in local protests the last year.
Fisher is among the newer voices he describes as “in the crucible.”
“I’m usually talking to one side or another,” Fisher said of appealing to those who think organizations are too quick to compromise and those who preach patience at all costs.
Fisher hosted one of the forums on the reorganization of the Shelby County Democratic Party this spring and after listening to most of the comments told the gathering, “This group is way too moderate for me.” But he also continued to talk with that group and has with others from a middle ground that he defines as anything but middle of the road politically.
In May, the national NAACP board fired national president Cornell William Brooks after three years, effective the end of this month.
Brooks was not considered a strong enough activist by the board, even though he was arrested in January as he led a sit-in at the Alabama Senate office of Jeff Sessions, who is now U.S. Attorney General.
Melissa Harris-Perry, a former political commentator on MSNBC and professor of political and international affairs at Wake Forest University, is among the critics of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
In a May 30 New York Times op-ed, Harris-Perry said Brooks’ dismissal isn’t enough.
“Today, it is safe to be a member of the NAACP. It is also inconsequential,” she wrote, suggesting the organization should “step to the side.”
“If the NAACP is unprepared for emeritus status, it must be ready for a return to the bloody years,” Harris-Perry continued. “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.”
Malone read the op-ed and immediately contacted Harris-Perry to speak at the June 24 centennial event in Memphis. Harris-Perry agreed.
“I think that is asking a lot, but I think it’s something that we need to consider,” Malone said of the op-ed. “We have to be comfortable taking positions that maybe five years ago we were not comfortable coming out and taking a position on. We have to be vocal. I think that’s what our members expect of us.”
The Memphis branch was founded in such a climate in June 1917. Its charter was drawn up within months after the May 1917 lynching of Ell Persons in Memphis.
James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP came to Memphis to investigate the death of Persons, who was burned alive as 5,000 gathered and watched in an event that local newspapers of the day billed in advance while reporting on the preparations.
Johnson urged his Memphis host, Robert Church Jr., who had already founded a Lincoln League political organization for African-Americans, to found an NAACP chapter.
The NAACP was founded to combat, expose and condemn the practice of lynching in the early 20th century during a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Johnson and other investigators traveled clandestinely. NAACP officials and others who reported events to them used code phrases in dispatches. The phrases chronicled in “The Robert R. Churches of Memphis,” the family biography of the wealthy African-American father and son, include using the word “cash” for a rape. Someone who “purchased Memphis” had been lynched in Memphis. “Wire funds” was code for recommending an immediate investigation and “sale Memphis” meant a race riot with a dollar figure indicating the total of black citizens injured.
The exodus of black Memphians out of the city and region in the wake of Persons’ lynching included the city’s most famous musician, W.C. Handy. As Handy was walking Beale Street, he came across a crowd gathered around Persons’ severed, burned head that those from the lynching had taken to Beale Street and thrown into the crowd.
In his autobiography, “Father of the Blues,” written 24 years later, Handy remembered Persons as “Tom Smith” – “a pleasant easy-going young fellow.”
Memphis Branch NAACP president Deidre Malone spoke at May events marking the centennial of the lynching of Ell Persons. His death was the catalyst for the formation of the Memphis chapter of the civil rights organization. (Memphis News File/Houston Cofield)
Handy’s biographer, David Robertson, confirms that Smith was Ell Persons and that the aftermath of the lynching brought to the surface a long history of sudden, indiscriminate racial violence by white mobs often with law enforcement looking the other way, at best, or leading the mob at worst as was the case in the 1866 Memphis Massacre.
“Stunned, deeply resentful, I had walked slowly to the office,” Handy wrote. “All the brutal savage acts I had seen wreaked against unfortunate human beings came back to torment me – particularly those in which the luckless one came near being myself.”
Handy’s account of his Memphis years up to 1917 as a musician and bandleader is replete with encounters with armed white men while traveling, and fast exits from towns, hidden in woods until nightfall and on trains hurriedly mobilized as lynch mobs went looking for anyone who wasn’t white.
“Someday I would be gone,” Handy remembered of his resolve. “They’d look for me on Beale Street, up and down the river, along the Yellow Dog and the Peavine but I would not be there.”
A century later, the NAACP was part of events marking the centennial of Persons’ lynching as it and other groups including the Lynching Sites Project unveiled historical markers near what is left of the old Macon Road Bridge where Persons was set afire as the crowd watched.
Malone was among the speakers. Four days later, she spoke at protests in the Civic Center Plaza as Sessions was in the city to speak to local criminal justice system leaders.
Sawyer was among those in Malone’s cabinet who pushed for the Memphis branch’s involvement.
“For our organization it wasn’t about him coming to Memphis,” Malone said. “We understand that the mayor and elected officials have to meet with any elected or appointed federal official to try to get whatever they need for our city. But at the end of the day, our officials still have a responsibility to say we don’t want our jail overcrowded, and with these low-level drug charges and these mandatory sentences that is what is about to happen, and that was the case 10, 15 years ago and we don’t want to go back to that.”
The protesters gathered on the Front Street side of the Odell Horton-Clifford Davis Federal Building just two blocks from the exit ramp onto Front from the Hernando DeSoto Bridge – the sight of the July 10 Black Lives Matter protest march that shut down the bridge for several hours. It was the largest march of its kind the city had seen in 40 years.
As the planned BLM march from the National Civil Rights Museum to the plaza of FedExForum became a spontaneous march to the bridge, Norman – who was still president of the Memphis NAACP – turned his home into a communications center. The bridge crowd grew to more than 1,000 with social media posts that brought hundreds more to the bridge over several hours.
“I had set up a home base or legal base at my home,” Norman said. “I had lawyers and people who were ready to put bond money in place so that we could get the protesters out of jail if need be.”
Malone was part of that effort.
Norman had been watching and reacting to the string of fatal police shootings of African-American men in other cities and the trials and investigations that followed, as well as riots and similar disturbances in other cities.
The purpose was to avoid such violence here.
The new leadership team of the Memphis Branch NAACP is a mix of veterans of the civil rights organization and some new faces. Officers pictured, from left, are Coleman Thompson, Freda Williams, Leeroy Jones, Gale Jones Carson, Deidre Malone, Debra Davis, Felicia Harris, Tami Sawyer and Earle Fisher. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
BRIDGING THE GAP
The bridge protest came one year to the month after Memphis Police officer Connor Schilling shot and fatally wounded Darrius Stewart during a traffic stop in Hickory Hill. A county grand jury had decided Schilling would face no charges despite District Attorney General Amy Weirich recommending a voluntary manslaughter charge. Ultimately, federal prosecutors reviewed the incident and decided there would be no federal charges of civil rights violations.
The bridge protest was a breakthrough that brought out a new generation of Memphians not normally engaged in such causes. They ranged from young professionals to street gang members to fraternity and sorority members.
After the peaceful end to the protest, some of the leaders believed they were manipulated and tricked into attending public forums that went nowhere. It laid bare different outlooks on the purpose of protest – in a city where the NAACP has historically participated in protest sparingly and then with great effect in the 1968 sanitation workers strike and the Black Monday protests that followed a year later.
“One of the things I’ve been trying to teach a generation of protesters is there is strategy involved in protest,” Norman said. “First, there’s an attempt at policy. If policy attempts fail, there is preparation and then once we have preparation we go to protest. And then after protest, once you gain the attention of the one whom you have had to protest, you return to the demands of policy-making.”
Sawyer sees protest as more of an ingredient with other elements that can happen all at once.
“You have to have a multifaceted approach. There have to be protests to keep people interested or at least aware,” she said. “And then behind the scenes you have to have the legal advice. You have to have the strategy, people in office who are aligned to the movement.”
Norman said he’s not against protest.
“When you don’t have strategy behind your protest, the person you are protesting against – they have the ability to wait you out,” he said. “They will sit around and say, ‘Okay, they will run out of energy. They can’t stand out here forever and when they go back home we’ll go back to doing whatever we’ve done. As a matter of fact, we’ll ratchet it up a notch.’”
Sawyer sees protest as more of a companion-type of activism.
“I think the NAACP has the history and prestige to be a leader in the movement if we can truly bridge the generational gap,” she said, “if we can look at the marriage between the type of activism that takes place in the street and the type of activism that takes place behind doors.”
The civil rights movement of the 1960s included crossing organizational lines, although there were well-documented tensions among the various groups. NAACP national executive director Roy Wilkins was critical of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a drain on the NAACP’s dues-paying members and King, of the SCLC, did not charge dues for SCLC membership as a result.
Before he was the NAACP’s national executive director, Hooks was among the leaders King called on for the 1965 voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama. Decades later, Hooks would laugh about the multiple routes marchers would take from different directions to get to the Selma courthouse with dozens of prospective voters. Several of the lines were met with violent efforts by local law enforcement to turn them back. Hooks had just survived a particularly brutal assault on the line he was leading when he thought he had drawn an easier path the next day. Much to his surprise, when his line turned a corner in Selma, Hooks remembered that he immediately saw a police officer with his riot baton raised over his head.
Hooks also said Memphis was something of a hub for civil rights movement forays into North Mississippi, not because it was more progressive but because there were more places in the big city to hide.
But a roll call of Memphis NAACP leaders going back to Robert Church includes figures whose first, second and third inclination was to do anything but hide.
IDA B. WELLS
(Library of Congress)
When the Memphis chapter was founded, Ida B. Wells had been telling the rest of the country and the world about lynchings in Memphis for 25 years. Wells left the city in 1892 and never returned after a mob wrecked her office for an editorial she wrote under a pen name calling attention to the 1892 lynching of three men who operated a food store co-op in South Memphis that drew the attention of law enforcement when a rival white merchant set them up for the violent encounter.
Wells was part of the NAACP founding conference in 1909. But she was not named by W.E.B. DuBois to the committee of 40 that established the NAACP because she thought the leadership of the NAACP should not include whites, according to Alfreda Duster, Wells’ daughter, in an interview with Dorothy Sterling contained in Miriam Decosta-Willis’s 1995 book, “The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells.”
“Mother was with W.E. B. DuBois in his basic concepts, but she didn’t mince words,” Duster said. “Those who were trying to have peace and quiet would naturally try to go around Ida B. Wells. She was a little ahead of her time.”
(Memphis-Shelby County Room Memphis Public Library)
It’s hard to imagine the path of race relations in Memphis through the civil rights movement to the present without Maxine Smith, who became executive secretary of the Memphis branch in 1962 and served in that position through 1995 – a third of the branch’s 100 years.
She served as branch leader while also an elected Memphis City Schools board member. Her husband, Vasco Smith, was a Shelby County commissioner. Together their influence on race relations in Memphis is incalculable.
Maxine Smith was the leader of three fronts of negotiation, litigation and protest at a time when the national NAACP was being painted as the most tactically conservative of organizations in the vanguard of the civil rights movement.
After winning election to the school board in 1971, Smith was the face of the federal court battle that led to court-ordered busing for desegregation in 1973 – a lawsuit against Memphis City Schools.
Given that history, Malone now leads a chapter that acknowledges changing times, but familiar issues with different symptoms.
“We’re still facing some of the same challenges that we faced then,” she said this month during a centennial event. “As part of the next century, specifically the next five years, this branch is working on what are those strategies that we can create as a branch that’s going to help move our community forward.”
Norman says the way forward is through change that has its feet in different arenas.
“Does the NAACP need to broaden its platform? Yes. Does it need to become more inclusive? By all means. We must never lose site of the mission,” Norman said. “I’m not saying we won’t ever lead protests again. I’m just saying that at this present point, if we don’t have policy-makers and intentional involvement in the political arena then we are missing a great opportunity.”