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VOL. 10 | NO. 25 | Saturday, June 17, 2017

Editorial: Memphis NAACP And The Crucible

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It’s hard to imagine a more perilous birth than the one that brought the Memphis Branch NAACP into the world a century ago.

Let’s be specific about what that world was like in 1917, because it is a horrific reality we should never forget.

It was a Memphis where police accused a man of murder based on saying they saw his image in the eyes of the girl he allegedly killed. They beat him before ever charging him with a crime. Before he could stand trial, Ell Persons was pulled from a train while in the custody of law enforcement, taken to the old Macon Road Bridge at an hour local newspapers had been publicizing for weeks, tied to a wooden post and burned alive.

Around 5,000 men, women and children watched it happen. Some in the crowd took his burned, severed head and rode over to Beale Street, where they tossed it into a crowd.

It was a message, and the Memphis Branch was the courageous, necessary response.

In the century since that summer of 1917, the organization and its leaders have shaped Memphis at critical junctures, repeatedly making a difference when some in our city were resolute that change should not and would not happen.

The NAACP leaders in Memphis met that resistance with an unflappable calm that made their victory seem inevitable in retrospect when it was anything but.

That orthodoxy has paved the way for civil rights leaders who have become leaders and part of the city’s political establishment. It also has left the largest chapter of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization open to questions about relevance as progress has been made.

Many of those questions center on what progress means in an era when the basic underlying problems of violence, justice and equity have changed their spots but not their pervasiveness.

Earle Fisher, one of the new board members of the Memphis Branch who has been involved in an upswing in protests around various causes over the past year or so, has described the dilemma for him and others as a “crucible.”

The Memphis NAACP’s history, impact and importance is undeniable. So is its orthodoxy, which can provide an unshakable foundation but at times can also slow momentum to a crawl.

The crucible for those new voices is what to do with the energy – bridging the gap between civil rights-era orthodoxy that police departments and city leaders adjusted to long ago and boots in the street mobilized on social media over myriad causes that pop up when things get hot politically.

Too long and too fast are the boundaries, and the middle ground between them isn’t necessarily moderation. It’s a third way forward that doesn’t come down to either blindly trusting leaders or following issues over a cliff for a lack of trust.

The NAACP is still needed as much as it still needs to change.

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