The Future of Cleveland's NAACP
By Elizabeth Miller
For an NAACP branch that boasted 17,000 members in 1965, Cleveland’s chapter is far from where it once was. Internal turmoil, lack of funds, and changes in leadership all plagued the organization in the last few years. But now, new leaders promise that the 104 year old organization is back to serve its community once again.
About 70 people gathered for the first 2016 meeting of Cleveland’s NAACP branch at University Circle Methodist Church. Most were general members or new officers being sworn-in. But a small few were non-members, there to hear what new president Michael Nelson had to say.
“The NAACP is a revered organization. But like many seasoned organizations, this chapter is now in a period of transition," said Nelson.
"Its message has sometimes been muddled by some internal issues, but we’ve survived.”
Those internal issues included the exit of long-time president George Forbes. After 20 years leading the group, he resigned in 2012, leaving the organization in disarray. 3 years later, executive director Sheila Wright left too and her position remains unfilled. Then there was controversy over the election of new officers. Through it all, Nelson says the group lost sight of its top priority.
"It was more important for people to be acquainted with the branch for their resumes and obituaries than it was for providing service to the community," said Nelson.
A community that includes Evelyn Burnett, who moved to Cleveland in 2014. She purchased a lifetime membership to the NAACP, which costs about $750. She got involved with the group’s economic development committee, but soon --
"The meetings were happening, then they weren’t happening," Burnett said.
"The general body meetings were constantly being cancelled. I stopped going."
And she says the timing was poor.
"Was I frustrated? I was really frustrated. And just disappointed and sad. And it wasn’t about the 750 bucks. This is when we need NAACP the most."
In 2014, a Cleveland police officer killed 12 year old Tamir Rice, who had been playing with a pellet gun in a west side park. Last year, a judge acquitted officer Michael Brelo for the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who died in a barrage of police gunfire following a cross-town chase.
“I think we owe a major apology to the families of Timothy and Malissa," said Nelson.
"We really didn’t do what we should’ve done to protect the civil rights of those people.”
Mike Nelson and Vice President James Hardiman, both attorneys, kept the NAACP’s legal redress and criminal justice committees active even when other committees faltered. They assembled a group of lawyers to work pro-bono for protesters arrested after the not-guilty verdict for Officer Brelo last summer. Still, Nelson regrets the lack of action from the whole branch.
Local writer RA Washington says the NAACP’s legacy may be getting in the way of its growth.
"What happens with a lot of historic social justice institutions is that there becomes a disconnect when you try to hold on to what you mean to a community by right of not engaging younger people, not bringing young people into leadership," said Washington.
"You see the NAACP in this place where they’re no longer not as effective as they were."
New president Michael Nelson agrees the future of the organization lies in its young members. To that end, they plan to roll out a membership campaign and sponsor activities geared toward young professionals. The group has a long way to go: the average age of the executive committee is 50. As Nelson points out, at least it’s no longer dominated by people in their 80’s. And that’s not the NAACP’s only problem.
As Evelyn Burnett points out, the Black Lives Matter Movement has youth and momentum on its side.
"Black Lives Matter speaks to some people more than NAACP right now, because they give people, particularly young people, an outlet to one, be heard. Two, it feels like more action," said Burnett.
"If I’m going out and protesting somewhere, I feel like I’m doing something. For some people, the spirit of action matters."
The NAACP plans to take action on issues like the criminal justice system and economic disparity. The group recently hosted events on voter participation and climate change. And in December following a grand jury’s decision not to indict two police officers involved in the shooting of Tamir Rice, the Cleveland NAACP backed a coalition of activist groups demanding the removal of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty.
Nelson sees at least one aspect of the group’s century-long history as an asset, and he plans to bring back a remnant of that past.
“When Congressman Louis Stokes was serving, he held something every Monday night," said Nelson.
"Every Monday night he had a caucus meeting, where people from this community could come and talk about anything they wanted to talk about.”
Right now, the branch is surviving on volunteers. It’s been 3 years since they’ve held their annual Freedom Fund Dinner to raise money. Three paid positions, including executive director, are unfilled with no plans to hire. And with some 2,000 members currently on the rolls, it’s a long way back to that 17,000 member high back in 1965.