NAACP retools for the Trump era

July 28, 2017 GMT

BALTIMORE — Attendees at this year’s NAACP convention said President Donald Trump sent a clear message to Black Americans by turning down an invitation to address the venerable civil rights organization’s annual meeting — the second year in a row he rejected an opportunity to speak.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that during these pressing and urgent times, the President has chosen to turn his back on the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization,” NAACP Board Chairman Leon Russell said in a statement. Trump’s decision, he added, “underscores the harsh fact: we’ve lost the will of the current administration to listen to issues facing the Black community.”

Thousands of Black activists and allies gathered in Baltimore over the past week to discuss legislative priorities and debate the most effective steps for the 108-year-old association to remain relevant as methods of activism change.

Trump’s election, many said, injected an urgency among activists who are concerned about his administration’s initiatives on issues like crime, health care and voting rights.

“The cases of police brutality, what’s taking place in our school systems, this sense of economic insecurity, the extreme gaps in pay, all of those things together has created more activism in ways in which we have not seen in a very long time,” said NAACP Interim President and CEO Derrick Johnson. “But unquestionably the election of Donald Trump. If you look at the first 60 days, the number of marches and demonstrations and the number of people who have participated, it really shows that we have a nation where people are unsettled with the outcome of the last election.”

Trump, who also declined a speech invitation last year as a presidential candidate, secured support from just 8 percent of Black voters in November, according to CNN exit polls.

Although Trump was not present, his administration did send Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who delivered a brief address about the President’s criminal justice priorities. His remarks received a tepid response. Many of the administration’s justice initiatives, including heightening the drug war and doubling down on mandatory minimum sentences, are at odds with positions in the NAACP.

Rosenstein’s speech came as the president delivered another string of critical statements about his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on Twitter. Rosenstein did not address the tension between Trump and Sessions. After Rosenstein’s speech, several attendees repudiated him on stage.

“Stand up. March up,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “We will outlast Trump and we will outlast this dark night.”

The question of the most effective way to stand up, however, has been a point of debate among NAACP supporters.

As the rapid pace of activism has changed, the group has been taking steps to restructure its methods. The NAACP parted ways with its president, Cornell William Brooks, earlier this year as part of what the association called a “transformational, system-wide refresh and strategic re-envisioning” of its strategies. Johnson, the current interim president, is set to embark on a listening tour later this summer to visit state chapters around the country.

“I think everybody’s wondering what’s next for the NAACP,” said the Rev. Kaji S. Dousa, senior minister of Park Avenue Christian Church in New York. “It’s a very important historic organization and a lot of people are wondering what’s their work now?” — (CNN)