CLEARWATER — They were eager to hear what he had to say, to see if he could make sense of it all.
Many of the people who gathered in Ruth Eckerd Hall’s ballroom Friday evening for the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP Branch’s annual banquet felt they had already lived through their hardest era of fighting for racial justice.
As a 12-year-old in south Georgia in 1961, Branch President Marva McWhite’s home was shot up with bullets as her family became known for civil rights activism. Membership Chair Linda Brewton remembers the sting of segregated Pinellas schools.
So it was a comfort, McWhite said, when out of the NAACP’s 2,200 branches, national President Derrick Johnson chose to visit Clearwater/Upper Pinellas. And he came with reassurance.
"NAACP, we are at a critical juncture," Johnson told the audience of about 200. "You look at the current political landscape, the loss of civility, the rise in hate crime and intolerance. We were created for a time like this."
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The circumstances that created the NAACP in 1909 are not wildly different from the injustices driving the organization today, Johnson said.
When slavery was abolished in 1865, it was replaced by decades of lynchings and violence that terrorized African Americans and denied them basic freedoms. A massive race riot in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 was a turning point that prompted a group of white liberals to unite with black activists and form what would become the nation’s largest civil rights organization.
"When we created the NAACP, it was an opportunity for all of us to come together to make democracy work," Johnson said. "It was a chance for all of us to come to make a civil society where civility would allow people to enter into political discourse, agree to disagree and still respect each other’s humanity. We’ve lost that... it’s the loss of civility that we’re confronted with right now."
At no point in his 30-minute speech did Johnson mention President Donald Trump by name. But he expressed what he viewed as the president’s poor treatment of immigrants, empowering of white supremacy rallies, escape from consequences for political self-dealing, breakdown of decency, befuddling name calling and midnight tweeting, that has reinforced the NAACP’S role in combating hate.
The milestone achieved with the election of the country’s first black president in 2008 was tempered with the fear mongering and racial resentment it triggered, Johnson said.
African Americans could "hear the dog whistle" of subtle racism that built momentum to the 2016 election of Trump, he said. But now, he said, like in 1909 when whites and blacks came together to form the country’s largest civil rights organization, even those of different political persuasions are awakening to say, "This ain’t right."
"The fear mongering that has taken place from 2008 until today has created a direct and present danger to our democracy," Johnson said. "If we want to protect what has been built through blood, sweat, tears and struggle to get us all in this room today, we have to move way from the otherness and begin to embrace one another. The NAACP was created for this moment."
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Amid the uncertainty in today’s world, McWhite said she is choosing to see a window for change.
Over the last several years, the Upper Pinellas NAACP branch has fallen relatively quiet. Politely declining to disclose membership numbers, McWhite said participation is not where she knows it could be.
But since her election as branch president in November, McWhite said her goal is to increase activism throughout the county. She hopes to expand the branch’s existing scholarship fund for graduating high school students and work with other local organizations to focus on civil liberties.
Mobilizing people to vote in the mid-term elections in November is a national NAACP priority also trickling down to local chapters, she said.
"There’s a real motivation to protect the progress that’s already behind us so we don’t go backwards," she said.
Brewton said she sees herself in the young activists protesting gun violence across the country following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. She was teenager herself in the 1960s when she fought for civil rights in Pinellas County.
She said a goal of activism today has to be explaining how racism affects all of society, not just its targets. It’s a human issue, not just a black issue, she said, when unarmed black men are killed by law enforcement at disproportionate rates while white school shooters are led off safely in handcuffs.
"Jim Crow is alive today, it’s just not under the white sheet," she said. "Think of all we fought hard for. We can’t let that go away."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.