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100 YEARS OF ACTIVISM

Tampa Bay branches give a nod to NAACP's history and a call to action.

The birthday party was for a 100-year-old, but organizers wanted a younger crowd. So they booked the HipHopSodaShop in Tampa.

Today, the NAACP marks a century of struggles to ensure that black Americans can live, learn, work and vote anywhere. But along with the celebrations, NAACP leaders are looking to new challenges, among them attracting a new generation of members.

"I think Barack Obama proved that young people aren't apathetic," said banker Curtis Stokes, 40, president of the NAACP's Hillsborough branch. "You just have to have a cause they can believe in."

Monday night's party at the HipHopSodaShop drew about 100 people, and hosts tried to coax both young and middle-aged onto the dance floor together.

First Stevie Wonder's Happy Birthday brought out the older crowd.

Then the college kids took over during rapper Luke Skyywalker'sIt's Your Birthday.

Finally Marvin Gaye came on singing Got to Give it Up.

Everybody danced.

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The NAACP in Tampa Bay goes back to the founding of the Tampa branch in 1917.

Ten years later, a study found 23,000 black residents in Tampa, according to University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino. Most worked as unskilled laborers or domestic servants, and they were banned from parks and beaches.

Across the bay, activists chartered the St. Petersburg chapter in 1934.

The NAACP gained prominence in Florida in the 1940s, said Ray Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

"Until 1961, the NAACP was pretty much the only game in town," he said. "Since (then) there have been multiple organizations. Some people have felt that the NAACP has not been as militant and on the leading front as they should be. But they've maintained an important presence for going on 70 years."

Across the bay area, the NAACP waged decades-long legal struggles for voting rights and integration, often amid threats, intimidation and gunfire.

As a high school senior, the Rev. Shafter E. Scott worked with NAACP leaders on student sit-ins at Kress and Woolworth's in downtown Tampa. "They walked with us and told us not to be afraid," he said.

But after the sit-ins, someone shot into the Tampa home of the Rev. A. Leon Lowry, the Florida president of the NAACP.

Also in the 1960s, Talmadge Rutledge found three bullet holes in his Clearwater home. One bullet pierced a window. Another went through a door. The third hit a pipe.

Rutledge, 80, was agitating for school integration as president of the NAACP's Upper Pinellas/Clearwater branch. "There was a lot of resistance, but we had some persistence," he said.

Today Rutledge remains active but surmises that few, if any, of his five grown children belong to the NAACP. He hopes his grandson will join and step forward. That's how it used to work.

"The elderly people were the fundraisers, and the younger people did the legwork," he said. "We still need those two elements involved."

- - -

Like the NAACP nationwide, Tampa Bay's chapters want to increase their membership.

The Tampa and St. Petersburg chapters each have about 500 members.

Worldwide, membership totals 600,000. That number has held steady since just after World War II, when membership rolls peaked, according to the NAACP.

Newly elected St. Petersburg branch president Ray Tampa hopes to reach out to churches, sororities and fraternities.

"There's so many issues, so many challenges, that the community needs an advocacy organization," said Tampa, a retired principal and co-owner of the Kizmet Old School Cafe in St. Petersburg.

Those priorities include black-on-black crime, economic development and disparities in health care and education.

In Tampa, Stokes wants to focus on black high school graduation rates, making college affordable and helping minority-owned businesses.

Perhaps the organization's biggest recruiting tool for young people is its national president, Benjamin T. Jealous, 35, who said it helps to have Obama in the White House.

"Community organizing is cool again, and that makes our life a lot easier," said Jealous, who most wants to recruit 25- to 45-year-olds.

The NAACP's targets also have changed and now include: income disparities; the achievement gap; minority health care and banks that engage in predatory lending.

Still, the NAACP remains local, said national board member and longtime Clearwater NAACP leader Leon Russell.

"If we intend to see our communities progress over the next 100 years, then it still has to be about engaging people at the local level," he said.

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

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Fast facts

NAACP centennial events

- Free forum on education issues, 6 to 8 tonight at Middleton High School, 4801 N 22nd St., Tampa.

- Bus tour of black-owned businesses, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Meet at the Good Luck Cafe, 1910 E Seventh Ave. in Ybor City. Cost is $5.

- Rededication service for members, 4 p.m. Sunday at Beulah Baptist Church, 1006 W Cypress St., Tampa.

Call Pat Spencer at (813) 205-3834.

On the Web

For a time line of significant events in NAACP history, go to links.tampabay.com.

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NAACP TIMELINE

Feb. 12, 1909: Founded in New York by a multiracial group that included W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

1917: Tampa chapter founded.

1951: Florida field secretary Harry T. Moore and his wife murdered when a bomb goes off under his bed. Replaced by Tampa's Robert Saunders.

1960: NAACP-led sit-ins lead to integration of Tampa lunch counters.

1961: First black student in Tampa attends school with white children.

1993: Tampa NAACP successfully opposes a museum and entertainment complex based on the slave ship Whydah.

1996: Tampa and Plant City NAACP chapters merge to form a Hillsborough County branch.

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