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SLOW MARCH TO EQUALITY

The NAACP changed history. Is the St. Petersburg group still relevant? Absolutely, many say.

Closed banks. Collapsed real estate. Soaring unemployment. News of today with echoes of the past.

Years ago, as the Great Depression smothered the nation, blacks in St. Petersburg couldn't sit on its famous green benches, visit the Million Dollar Pier or set foot in waterfront parks. Rigid, but unofficial, zoning restrictions dictated where black people could live.

It was onto this stage that the St. Petersburg branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People emerged. The year was 1933. The new local chapter lagged behind the birth of the national organization by almost a quarter-century.

Over the next 76 years, the St. Petersburg group confronted racism, obvious and covert. Its efforts would lead to improved housing for black residents, the end of whites-only lunch counters, public restrooms, movie theaters, golf courses and swimming areas, better opportunities for black schoolchildren and access to once-restricted economic and career opportunities.

The NAACP branch holds a coveted place in the annals of local civil rights, said Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

"Sometimes, they might not have been as progressive and as militant as they could have been, but more often than not, they have been in the forefront,'' he said. "There have been ebbs and flows. They've had their struggles, but certainly they've been enormously important and we owe them a great debt in keeping the civil rights issues alive.''

As the years passed and new civil rights groups emerged, the NAACP's relevance came into question. Some have grown impatient with what they see as the chapter's aloofness and cautious plodding in the face of continuing injustices.

That is what propelled Darryl Rouson, a lawyer, to run for president in 1999.

"There were critical and relevant current-day issues that the NAACP was not involved in. What I saw was that the NAACP was not in the political, the economic or the social arenas. And those individuals who urged me to run ... (wanted) to plot a new course,'' said Rouson, now a Florida state representative.

"I wanted to make it relevant to the 20-somethings, the 30-somethings and the 40-somethings. It was top heavy in our seniors, so the average young black professional did not see it as a viable and relevant organization.''

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The NAACP was founded in 1909, the brainchild of liberal whites, including descendants of abolitionists, and Northern blacks, among them Harvard-educated W.E.B. DuBois. Today it is recognized as the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization and is best known for the landmark school desegregation ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. (The lawsuit was handled by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which in the late 1950s became a separate organization.)

In St. Petersburg's black community, early struggles for basic rights were stymied by lack of political power. A 1931 city charter included a clause that banned whites from living or having businesses in black neighborhoods and blacks doing the same in white neighborhoods. Strict enforcement proved impractical, but it had the effect of continuing to confine virtually all black residents in certain neighborhoods.

In 1937, many black residents defied threats from the Ku Klux Klan, which had more than 200 hooded members march through black neighborhoods, to vote in an important civil service law referendum.

Years later, as the struggle for civil rights intensified, black activists risked arrest to sit in at segregated lunch counters, picket segregated movie theaters and march on City Hall in support of fair wages and working conditions for sanitation workers.

Then came what some see as the drought years. The NAACP chapter, some observers said, had become an anachronism because it did not take stands on some key issues. The new millennium, however, brought a jolt of new, advocacy-leaning leadership.

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Grant McCray Sr., a pastor and founder of a child care center, organized a local NAACP group in 1922 and became its president, but the group didn't have enough members to get a charter from the national organization.

When the chapter got a charter 11 years later, the president was Noah W. Griffin, principal of the blacks-only Gibbs High School. Under Griffin, who served until 1938, the chapter attempted to tackle unequal pay for black teachers, police brutality and banishment of blacks from the city's waterfront. Griffin himself became a victim of racial violence when police clubbed him to the ground while he and other black educators were picnicking in the Shore Acres neighborhood. The incident even outraged some whites, including the city's Ministerial Association, which asked the city to give blacks a beach or pool of their own.

The Rev. John Wesley Carter of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, the local NAACP's second president (1938 to 1947), appeared before the City Council in 1939 to urge a "new deal" for black residents - decent housing, paved streets, police protection, expanded recreation facilities and voting rights. That same year, after much urging from white business and civic leaders, construction began on the first phase of the federally funded Jordan Park housing project. In 1940, the first residents moved in.

Across the nation, the fight for equality continued. In1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in a major league baseball game, but for years black ballplayers who came to St. Petersburg for spring training couldn't stay at the same hotels as white players.

On Christmas Day 1951, Florida NAACP leader Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette, were killed after a bomb was placed beneath their home in Mims. Four years later, Rosa Parks helped ignite the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus.

In St. Petersburg, the civil rights movement produced important breakthroughs. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Dr. Fred Alsup, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, Willet Williams, Naomi Williams, Chester James Jr. and Harold Davis in their lawsuit to end segregation at Spa Beach. Wimbish, a physician who was NAACP president in 1960-61, helped lead the sit-ins that led to the integration of lunch counters and the protests that opened the city's public restrooms, junior college and public hospital to blacks. In 1969, his wife, C. Bette Wimbish, became the first African-American elected to the City Council.

The 1960s would be remembered worldwide for the march on Washington and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. For Pinellas residents, the decade also would be remembered for a federal lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that eventually ended segregation in the public schools. The Legal Defense Fund case was handled by James B. Sanderlin, a lawyer who later became a county, circuit and state appellate judge.

In the years that followed, the NAACP chapter continued the battle to ensure equal education for black students and opportunities for black teachers. Morris Milton, a charismatic lawyer who was branch president in 1973-83, complained that the School Board did not appoint enough blacks to administrative positions and unfairly disciplined black students.

The struggles over the years created plenty of heroes, like Perkins T. Shelton, who as the NAACP's director of branch affairs fought for promotions for black firefighters and police officers; the Rev. Enoch Davis, for many years a champion for civil rights; and Chester James, who helped lead voter registration efforts. Joseph E. Savage led a four-month sanitation workers strike in 1968 for better wages and working conditions that became a watershed civil rights event in the city's history. The city's sanitation complex is now named for him.

In 1983, the branch elected its first female president, Garnelle Jenkins, a teacher. She served for 17 years. Friends described her as strong and direct, but she maintained a low public profile.

New, younger leaders emerged after the riots that erupted after the fatal police shooting of a young African-American named TyRon Lewis in 1996. Rouson, who challenged and defeated Jenkins in 1999, said the group's work continues.

"The challenges now are not so much the overt and obvious of racism; it's the covert and the undercover racism,'' he said.

"The other challenge is to keep your membership engaged, to keep them wanting to show their membership card and be proud they are part of the organization that is doing things that are relevant to their everyday living.''

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Sources: St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream: 1888-1950 by Raymond Arsenault, Mangroves to Major League by Rick Baker and St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South by Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson

IF YOU GO

Anniversary banquet

The NAACP will mark the national organization's 100th anniversary and 76 years as a chapter in St. Petersburg at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N. The speaker is 1967 Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Patterson, who retired as editor and chairman of the Times in 1988. Tickets are $75 and available through the NAACP office at 1501 16th St. S from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily or by calling (727) 898-3310.

Fast facts

NAACP presidents through the years

1922-1933 Grant McCray Sr., pastor of Triumph Holiness Church and founder of a child care center *

1933-1938 Noah Griffin, Gibbs High School principal

1938-1947 John Wesley Carter, pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church

1947-1949 J.A. Whitehurst, insurance salesman, Central Life Insurance Co. of Florida

1949-1952 McCray

1952-1954 Floyd A. Dunn, insurance salesman, Central Life Insurance Co. of Florida

1954-1959 O.M. McAdams, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church and a Gibbs High School teacher

1959-1960James L. Fennell, pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church

1960-1961 Ralph Wimbish, physician

1961-1962 Leon Cox, Gibbs Junior College teacher

1962-1966 Fennell

1966-1968 Louis O. Harper, St. Petersburg Junior College teacher

1968-1970 Isaiah "Ike" Williams, lawyer

1970-1973 Roy Holmes, department store manager

1973-1983 Morris Milton, lawyer

1983-2000 Garnelle Jenkins, teacher

2000-2005 Darryl Rouson, lawyer

2005-2007Trenia Cox, educator and public administrator

2007-2009 Norman E. Brown, educator, businessman

2009-present Ray Tampa, educator, businessman

* The local chapter did not have a charter from the national NAACP until 1933.

Source: St. Petersburg chapter, NAACP

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