Black Like Us

Political machinations, intrigue, and good old-fashioned mudslinging: A look behind the scenes of the Minneapolis NAACP election scandal

When Henrietta Faulconer stepped inside South Minneapolis's Sabathani Community Center the morning of January 9, she couldn't believe her eyes. A full 30 minutes before voters were to begin selecting officers in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, people were already lined up in the hall. A representative of the NAACP's national office was on hand, explaining to the throng that the balloting wouldn't begin until ten. Most of the people he was addressing were white.

Founded in 1909 as a multiracial civil rights organization, the NAACP had always accepted members of all backgrounds. But turnout at local chapter meetings during the two years Faulconer had been a member had typically been light--20 was a standard crowd--and overwhelmingly black.

On her way to Sabathani that morning, Faulconer had been worried that the 30-below wind chill might keep NAACP members away from the election. Then again, she'd reasoned, perhaps people would be prompted to vote by the unprecedented degree of intrigue that had come to surround this election. A fight between two competing slates of would-be officers had landed in the courts, and the controversy had caused the national NAACP to dispatch a staffer to oversee the vote.

Still, Faulconer hadn't expected this kind of crowd. "I said to myself, What would bring so many white people out to vote on such a cold January day for leaders of a little black organization?" the longtime juvenile-justice activist recalls. "Why is this stuff going on in this little black association?"

Thomas Johnson III, an election judge who was tending the table for voters whose last names started with the letters H through L, noticed something else about the morning's crowd: Among those checking in at his station were a number of local politicians. Former state representative Dee Long picked up a ballot, as did Rep. Phyllis Kahn. At the adjacent table, Johnson spotted former Minneapolis mayor Don Fraser, his wife Arvonne, and a number of DFL notables he had never spotted at an NAACP meeting. "It reminded me of an Alice-in-Wonderland-type scenario," Johnson recalls. "Am I seeing this?"

Johnson says that by his tally, whites outnumbered blacks three to one for the first few hours of voting. Later in the day, the ratio was reversed, but the polling place stayed busy until it closed at four. By that time a total of 440 votes had been cast--almost a threefold increase over the previous election.

But if members had hoped the election would end the controversy surrounding the NAACP, they were wrong. More than two months after the vote, the group's president-elect, Minneapolis Deputy Fire Chief Rickie Campbell, has not been sworn in, while incumbent Leola Seals has stopped appearing at NAACP functions. Six veteran members--including five elected to posts on Campbell's ticket--have been suspended for a year by the group's national office. And each side is accusing the other of starting the nastiest episode of internecine fighting in the history of the Minneapolis NAACP.

The battle has occasionally spilled into the local dailies, with stories detailing who was running for office, where the balloting process stood, and when the fracas might be resolved. But nothing reported to date has explained why veteran civil rights crusaders would jeopardize the clout of their almost-century-old organization by publicly botching an election, or why white politicians would get involved in selecting volunteer officers in a local advocacy group. Answering those questions requires a look at the real stakes in the fight--including costly, long-term city and state projects and the prestige of powerful officials.

Under the presidency of Leola Seals, the Minneapolis NAACP staked out new and often controversial positions on several issues critical to local policymakers. Seals challenged the city's handling of a $117 million federal settlement in the Hollman public-housing lawsuit. She called the Minneapolis Police Department's CODEFOR strategy racist. Her followers packed meetings of the Minneapolis school board, protesting the city's performance on educating poor and minority children. And she took a hard line in a desegregation lawsuit filed by the NAACP against the state Board of Education.

Seals was targeted for defeat in the NAACP elections, offers Johnson, because her positions and tactics were anathema to the NAACP's veteran members and their political allies. "I think that when Leola and her contingent stood up, the old guard said, 'These audacious Negroes,'" he says. "If you bump the power structure here, you are set for a showdown."

 

At public functions Seals is rarely as well-dressed or as smoothly spoken as the people who last summer started organizing her ouster. A single mother of five--several of them now adult professionals in their own right--she moved to the Twin Cities from Natchez, Mississippi, and works for Legacy Village, a low-income housing complex on Minneapolis's North Side. Prior to her election to the NAACP presidency, Seals (who did not respond to City Pages' requests for an interview) was virtually unknown in public circles.

Past leaders, by contrast, have been active in the organization while also attaining leadership positions in prominent local nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies. Harry Davis, elected president in 1964, went on to become Minneapolis's first black candidate for mayor in 1971 and the third black person elected to the city's school board. Matt Little, who was president for more than seven years in the late '80s and early '90s, was the driving force behind the integration of Minneapolis schools and has been referred to as a mentor of Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles Belton; friends have described him as a conciliator "from the old school." Seals's immediate predecessor, Bill Davis (no relation to Harry Davis), heads the large nonprofit agency Community Action of Minneapolis.

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