State NAACP sweeps out incumbents

by Jordan Green

An election worker emerged from the Biltmore Room at the Koury Convention Center early Saturday evening with the election results for the North Carolina conference of NAACP chapters scrawled in black magic marker on a sheet of white poster board

At the top it read: ‘“ALSTON ‘— 117; BARBER ‘—166.’”

‘“Lord have mercy, an upset,’” cried a voice from the throng of delegates waiting in the hallway.

The resounding victory of Rev. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor in Goldsboro, ended a fractious campaign for the top post of the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The election brought to a close to the organization’s 62nd annual convention held in Greensboro Oct. 5 through 8.

The contest pitted the insurgent Barber, a thunderous preacher of the prophetic Old Testament tradition, against a formidable and skillful incumbent of eight years, Greensboro businessman and Guilford County Commissioner Melvin ‘Skip’Alston.

Barber’s 49-vote margin of victory settled a campaign strained by uncertainty over which branches would be credentialed to vote, disagreement over whether Barber was given adequate time to present his vision to the delegates, and hard-hitting campaign literature questioning the preacher’s level of experience and suggesting he might be a subversive agent of the Republican Party.

Challengers swept out incumbents for the state NAACP’s top three posts and the seat of treasurer. Carolyn Coleman, a member of the organization’s national board of directors and a Guilford County commissioner trounced incumbent Gladys Shipman, president of the Greensboro branch, for the office of 1st vice president in a vote of 212 to 71. Rev. Curtis Gatewood, a pastor from Oxford, beat incumbent Mary Perry for the 2nd vice president seat 137-94. And Carl Dean of Ahoskie unseated incumbent Bobbie Taylor.

Thirty-seven provisional votes were cast, according to the handwritten sign, but most of the races were won by a wide enough margin to rule out the possibility of the results being overturned.

J. Ronald White, a branch president in Wake County retained his position as 4th vice president on the state board, as did secretary Sylvia Barnes, president of the Goldsboro-Wayne chapter. Michael Leach won his race for the open seat of 3rd vice president.

‘“It means we’re re-embracing the NAACP of WEB DuBois and Medgar Evers,’” Gatewood said. ‘“We’re taking the NAACP back to the grassroots, back to its spiritual base. It’s no coincidence that Barber’s a minister and I’m a minister. We’re going to see a more grassroots connecting, more education and youth issues.’”

For his part Barber said he was ‘“humbled and gracious,’” and downplayed the notion that the organization would radically change course after Alston’s ouster.

‘“Any organization that doesn’t have vigorous and vital debate is going to stifle,’” he said. ‘“We’ve always had that.’”

Alston quickly conceded defeat and urged his supporters to get behind Barber.

‘“I give 150 percent of my support to this new president,’” he said at a banquet that evening. ‘“This organization is bigger than one person. It’s not about who’s at the top. It’s about who’s at the bottom.’”

From the outset, Barber’s candidacy resonated with younger members and activists who felt shut out by the state leadership, including some like Alice Medlin whose Richmond County branch had fallen behind on its dues.

‘“We’re not a behind-the-scenes organization,’” Barber said the day before the election. ‘“We’re a thermostat organization that sets the temperature, not a thermometer organization that puts its finger to the wind. We cannot be ambivalent about where we stand on [issues such as] resegregation. More than saying we’re against resegregation, we’ve got to have a plan to address it.’”

He added: ‘“I have called forthrightly for a study on the economic impacts of resegregation. Not only is it immoral but it’s economically suicidal.’”

In personal conversation and speeches, Barber tends to set out his agenda in a rhetorical skein that incorporates Biblical injunction, the legacy of historical civil rights struggles and the theme of enduring persecution for one’s convictions.

Where Barber is poetic, Alston has been blunt. Where Barber stressed justice, Alston marketed a more tangible commodity: black empowerment.

Along with education and membership, Alston named political and economic empowerment as priorities for the state NAACP, and outlined a concrete agenda.

‘“We want to try to get more African Americans running for office on local and state levels,’” he said. ‘“We got a lot of cities that have at-large election systems. We want to see if we can’t get district systems.’”

Economic empowerment, he said, means ‘“making sure we have our fair share of goods and contracts at the local and state level for our African-American contractors.’”

Adversity seemed to energize the Barber campaign, starting with a declaration by Alston in the pages of the Raleigh News & Observer that he wouldn’t debate his opponent.

On the second day of the convention during a workshop on juvenile justice, Alston paced in front of his campaign table alone with a cell phone to his ear. In contrast, Barber spoke to a throng of delegates who expressed concern about the time restrictions.

As the sitting president Alston was scheduled to make remarks on five different occasions during the three-day convention. A two-tone advertisement with the image of Alston standing with sleeves rolled up and a jacket flung over his shoulder printed on the back of the program gave the incumbent prominent exposure, along with large posters near the entrance to the convention hall of Alston, 1st vice presidential incumbent Gladys Shipman and state executive director Amina Turner greeting the delegates.

Barber was limited to addressing the delegates for five minutes at the candidates forum on the last day of the convention, along with the other candidates for the seven races. His advertisement was placed just inside the cover of the program.

‘“What about the NAACP can he talk about?’” Alston asked, holding up a flier that listed more than a dozen organizational posts held by himself, contrasted by Barber’s purported experience: $30 regular member and youth chapter member, 1980. ‘“My record speaks for itself. He doesn’t have a record.’”

Barber called the flier a ‘“distortion,’” saying he was actually a subscribing life member and that he had served on the state NAACP political action committee and on the board of his local branch.

Barber supporters continued up to the last minute to press for an extension of the time limit at the candidates forum. But after a report from the state election supervisory committee, national board member Leroy Warren rose to make one thing clear: ‘“We’re going to use five minutes.’”

Warren said he was appointed by the branch committee of the national board in Baltimore to oversee the election.

When they addressed the delegates, both candidates went for the gut.

Alston: ‘“My goal was that this would be a fearless organization that would scare white people. That’s why we put out our legislative report card’… I have an African-American agenda and white folks don’t like that.’”

Barber: ‘“Somebody tried to say I was sick today, but we’ve all got afflictions. Moses couldn’t talk right. Jesus was wounded for our transgressions. Tell the truth.’”

In addition to the controversy over how long the candidates should speak, members of the credentialing committee expressed public disagreement over the issue of which branches’ delegates would be allowed to vote, and one member tried to present a ‘minority report’ after the committee chair read off a list of eligible branches. Ultimately the matter was resolved when the delegates voted to receive the report as information rather than approving it as a final report.

The credentials committee went back into private session to sort out challenges and didn’t emerge with a final report until two and a half hours after polls were scheduled to open.

When the committee returned, the chair reported that the Richmond County branch, which had paid its dues shortly before the cutoff time, would be allowed to vote. The Greensboro branch, however, would not be allowed to vote. It was unclear why Greensboro’s credentials were challenged.

Warren, the national representative, struck down that decision.

‘“There are some concerns about Richmond and Greensboro, so I’m going to let them cast their ballots, and then we’ll kick those ballots to the national board,’” he said. ‘“I don’t want to see another election held; it’s too expensive.’”

He went on to chide the state conference for its handling of the election.

‘“We’re spending way too much time at the national level dealing with branch issues instead of civil rights issues,’” he said. ‘“We’ve got to put some governance in place. And when you lose, lose with dignity.’”

As the voting got underway another flier emerged questioning Barber’s fitness for the presidency.

Produced by a group identified as ‘“Black Democrats of North Carolina,’” it features a photograph of Barber tucked between pictures of Republican Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr with the question, ‘“Sold out?’” and asks whether his community development corporation received federal funding and whether he was ‘“part of a national Republican plan to use black preachers to take over the NAACP?’”

‘“It’s sad; it’s a lie,’” Barber said in response. ‘“If the current president of the NAACP had anything to do with it we can never complain about the tactics of George Bush and Jesse Helms again.’”

He added that he supported Dole as a protest against the Democratic Party’s treatment of former NC House Speaker Dan Blue, but said he didn’t support Burr. He said his organization, Rebuilding Broken Places, joined a partnership with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to build low and moderate-income housing for elderly people in Goldsboro, but didn’t receive funds from the federal agency.

Rev. Anthony Davis, a delegate from the Harnett County branch, said he remained ‘“prayerful’” and had not made up his mind about who to vote for in the hours leading up to the election. But the stakes were high.

‘“This election is critical, not solely because of what’s happening in North Carolina but [because] some of our adversaries are questioning whether the organization still has relevance,’” he said. ‘“When we look at what is happening in New Orleans and in our state, clearly the answer is yes.’”

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