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VOL. 132 | NO. 125 | Friday, June 23, 2017

Memphis NAACP Marks Centennial With Challenge

By Bill Dries

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When the Memphis Branch NAACP holds its annual Freedom Fund Luncheon Saturday, June 24, there will be a lot of memories and a lot of history.

The Memphis Branch’s largest annual event this year marks the centennial of an organization founded in the wake of the 1917 lynching of Ell Persons. James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP national office’s investigator who came to the city to gather facts on the incident, encouraged Robert Church Jr. to start a local chapter.

Johnson and other NAACP investigators travelled incognito when they investigated such mob attacks, murders and other racial incidents. Roy Wilkins, who would later become the national leader of the NAACP during the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, came to Memphis in disguise in the 1930s in his first assignment as an investigator. He was investigating racial segregation and conditions in flood refugee camps in North Mississippi.

It is that kind of danger that one of the two keynote speakers at the centennial event at the Memphis Hilton will say the NAACP lacks today.


In addition to former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political and international affairs at Wake Forest University, will also speak to those gathered in East Memphis.

Memphis NAACP president Deidre Malone invited Harris-Perry after reading a New York Times op-ed by Harris-Perry in May that questioned the relevance of the NAACP. She said the organization currently is “inconsequential” and should phase itself out or make itself more relevant.

“It must be ready for a return to the bloody years,” Harris-Perry said of the path to relevance, adding the Black Lives Matter movement is dangerous to be a part of because of its relevance.

Malone, a former Shelby County commissioner, became president of the Memphis branch in January and assembled a board or cabinet that includes leaders of some of the movements that have surfaced in Memphis in recent years. That includes Black Lives Matter activists.

The move to the NAACP is also a transition for Malone – a different kind of politics.

“It’s really hard for me,” she said of the NAACP’s iron-clad insistence that while it may oppose the proposals and policies of elected officials, it doesn’t endorse candidates or political parties.

“I’ve had to catch myself because I’m the president of the board and I can’t be involved in anything at that level. That’s what I’m used to. I’m a ground-game person.”

But Malone said leading the NAACP isn’t non-political.

“It’s still politics. It’s just in a different form,” she said. “We can enact change through voter registration, through public forums, through challenging with resolutions and potential ordinances and holding our elected officials accountable.”

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