The Classes and the Masses
The last few weeks have been tumultuous ones in local black politics. The closed-door appointment of a white male to succeed a black woman as the superintendent of Minneapolis schools led to outcries; the Minneapolis police's alleged mistreatment of a man from a prominent black family reopened old wounds; and another deadline came and went in the city's unmet contractual obligation to rebuild low-income and minority housing on the north side.
And the Minneapolis NAACP is at the heart of it all. The resignation last week of chapter president the Rev. Albert Gallmon highlighted an internal battle that has become increasingly contentious over the past year. The NAACP's executive committee continues to align itself with the traditional (white) power networks of the city. At the same time, a growing number of the local's 500 dues-paying members say the organization is doing nothing of consequence for the great majority of local black people.
The national NAACP is poised to intervene. Last month, representatives from the national board came to town for hearings over the possible suspensions of four prominent members, but the visit was really what one member calls a "fishing expedition" to assess several problems facing the Minneapolis branch. Many people say national will probably take control of the chapter; some believe it may decide to shutter the local NAACP altogether.
At the heart of the battle is what amounts to a class war. Gallmon speaks repentantly of his "failure" to attract more "middle class" membership, while many rank-and-file members say the NAACP has no interest in the working class people who need it most. They say the black professional class has hijacked the organization for the purpose of advancing their own careers and political standing--a familiar tension within the organization historically, and one that is again nearing flash point in Minneapolis.
"They are ignorant of our cause and arrogant in leadership," argues longtime member Evelyn Eubanks. "The notion that you have a degree or are a minister, and therefore don't have to talk to me about our decisions, is insulting and divisive."
Eubanks and others point to Gallmon's endorsement of David Jennings to take over Minneapolis public schools as symptomatic of the NAACP leadership's betrayals. How will Jennings, a white Republican and former state legislator with no academic experience, manage a troubled school system overwhelmingly made up of students of color? They note that Gallmon, before he became president in January, was on the school board, while Jennings was the district's financial officer. That he would publicly praise the appointment without consulting the membership smacks of cronyism in their eyes.
They also talk about the incident involving Alfred Flowers, a member who was shut out of an executive meeting at the Urban League on the north side two weekends ago. Police were called to the scene twice and eventually, many eyewitnesses say, Flowers was roughed up and arrested despite offering no resistance. While Gallmon insists that neither he nor any NAACP member called the cops, rumors persist that the scenario played out as intended: The executive committee wanted to send a message that members are second-class citizens. (Flowers, whose sister is a former Minneapolis cop, has filed two high-profile complaints against police in the past.)
Then came the news last week, on the same day that Gallmon announced his departure, that the city would not finish the Heritage Park redevelopment on time. The construction--part of the settlement of a 1992 lawsuit filed by the NAACP, Legal Aid Society, and plaintiffs against the city for purposely creating segregated housing on the north side--was the most controversial move the NAACP had made in a generation. In 1995 the city promised to raze the projects and rebuild some 770 affordable units. The NAACP, in a watchdog role, was granted the power to revisit the settlement in the event of blown deadlines.
There have been several delays over the years, and each time the question of whether to intervene has touched off debate within the NAACP. The latest round of blown deadlines was met with silence by NAACP execs, leading some members to wonder whose side the organization is on.
"We deal with this kind of covert oppression in this city all the time," Eubanks says. "To support these people with the city is to support your own oppression."
The current NAACP problems go back to January 1999, when membership enrollment for the Minneapolis NAACP ballooned just in time for a round of executive committee elections. A host of prominent white DFLers voted in droves to oust then-president Leola Seals, whose relatively radical leadership rattled old-guard politicos around the city. (See "Black Like Us," 3/17/99). Since then, the core membership has never really recovered from the influx of fair-weather members.
In fact, Gallmon's departure ensures that the organization will have had four different presidents since Seals, and three in less than a year. (Vice President Brett Buckner will replace Gallmon.) The election of Shalia Lindsey last November was full of controversy as well. Lindsey, who had the support of many of the white members, trounced longtime member Ron Edwards by nearly 100 votes. But many Edwards supporters claimed their votes were not counted.
A month after the election, Lindsey bolted to take a job in Denver as an NAACP field director, clearing the way for Gallmon, who had been elected vice president but originally sought the presidency. Since then, the organization's meetings are attended by people aligned with Eubanks, Flowers, and Edwards, while many of the Lindsey-Gallmon supporters rarely show. But, members complain, Gallmon has made sure the NAACP won't ruffle any feathers around town, and the executive committee has increasingly operated in secrecy.
"We have issues that we care about, and we vote on them," says member Pauline Thomas. "Then the executive committee just does things on their own. They override whatever we try to do."
(Eubanks, Flowers, Edwards, and Thomas are the four facing suspension charges for, among other things, talking to the media. "Don't I have a First Amendment right to speak?" asks Thomas. "What kind of civil rights organization is this?")
Other members are more succinct. "The DFL and the powers that be are controlling the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP," says member Booker T. Hodges.
"I don't agree with that, of course," counters Gallmon. "There were problems long before I came in, and individuals, if they were honest, would say that attempts have been made by me to right them."
Both sides agree that they won't be united any time soon without outside help. "National may have to come in and run the branch for a while to stabilize the branch," Gallmon concedes. "Let Buckner have someone here to help people mediate."
Hodges, like many others, is not appeased. "Brett's part of the continuing problem, he's not going to be part of change," he argues.
Besides, there are too many unresolved issues. The membership held a meeting last week--boycotted by the executive committee--to denounce the Jennings appointment, and will be addressing the problems with Heritage Park this week. What will come of the Flowers incident is unclear, and disputes over last year's election may eventually find their way to court. National representatives may find the only solution is to dissolve the Minneapolis NAACP once and for all.
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