ST. PETERSBURG — In 2014, the NAACP suspended its St. Petersburg branch as the group prepared to elect its executive officers.
Five years later, the civil rights organization is again being forced to intervene in the business of the local branch, which has been rent by accusations of vicious language, racist Facebook posts, political disagreement and a dispute that led to the deployment of police officers.
This evening the national office will send a representative to St. Petersburg to conduct elections for the local group's next president and other executive officers. The Baltimore-headquartered organization canceled a mandatory November election because of the persistent squabbling.
Current local president Maria Scruggs is at the epicenter of the controversy. She has antagonized several influential African-American leaders, many of whom support St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a target of Scruggs' criticisms. Detractors are supporting the Rev. G. Gregg Murray, 59, who moved to the area six years ago from Syracuse, N.Y., and is senior pastor of Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church.
Past president Ray Tampa says he's to be blamed for nominating Scruggs, 61, for the leadership role.
"I felt that Maria was unafraid to speak for the issues and she has good communication skills," he said. "I still feel the same things, but what I didn't know was that she was so divisive. I didn't know she was so toxic and meanspirited."
Scruggs, who has run unsuccessfully for elected office four times, including for mayor, says she is the victim of stereotyping and is being portrayed as an angry black woman, rather than as an advocate unafraid to speak up for issues important to the African-American community.
"I am a very confident black woman and a passionate black woman. If I were a white woman, or a man, I would be toasted from City Hall," she said, adding that she just wants "to stop the foolishness" and focus on the work at hand.
"Malcolm, Martin and Jesus, these are my mentors and when you look at their lives, no matter what they accomplished, they all had dissenters to the point that they killed them," she said.
An organized opposition is pushing Murray, who said in a Facebook post that God had directed him "to step in and right the wrongs and lead the St. Petersburg Chapter back to respectability and unity."
Pinellas County School Board chairwoman Rene Flowers is backing the pastor.
"I am supporting a change of leadership because the NAACP should be a leading organization in our community on issues that affect impoverished people, economic opportunity, education, immigration and affordable housing," she said. "It should not be an organization where the president utilizes the organization as a pulpit to denigrate individuals who do not agree with her."
Scruggs, who joined the local branch when she was 16, was elected president in 2015, after the branch was reactivated. State NAACP officials had ordered then-president, the Rev. Manuel Sykes, to turn in building keys and records. The reasons have still not been revealed.
This time around the trouble began after complaints to the national office about the election process and a dispute concerning Murray's eligibility to run for office. The national office responded with its plan to conduct the election itself.
Murray and Scruggs, a manager with Orange County Corrections, started out as allies. She had nominated him to chair the branch's religious affairs committee.
"I just kind of noticed that Maria was problematic," he said. "She was very disrespectful and couldn't work with people. She basically isolated herself and the NAACP was affected by that. She was not wanted by the black community."
Scruggs had reduced the organization "to nonsensical Facebook ramblings," he said in a post of his own. "I had endorsed Mayor Kriseman....She accused me of being paid off by Mayor Kriseman and that he was pimping me."
Cassandra Jackson, who sits on the branch's executive committee, supports Scruggs and said Murray abandoned his responsibilities as chair of the religious affairs committee, "so he has not shown any leadership qualities as far as I am concerned," she said.
Don Brown, first vice president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, will be present tonight. "We are trying to do our best to heal wounded feelings and do the work of the organization," he said. "Whether or not we will be able to accomplish that, only time will tell."