Facing a changing political landscape, NAACP national convention comes to Baltimore

The last time the NAACP held its national convention in Baltimore, in 2000, the speakers included then-President Bill Clinton and the two men who were vying to replace him, Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Seventeen years later, much has changed, in the country and for the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. For one thing, President Donald Trump declined an invitation to speak and in fact, some of the convention’s seminars and speeches will address what some believe are potential threats his administration poses to the civil rights organization’s core beliefs.

“Donald Trump is president of the United States, and, quite frankly we’re not clear what his agenda is,” said Leon W. Russell, chairman of the NAACP’s board of directors. “We have to respond to protect the advances that we’ve made.

“We would continue to do that no matter who is in the White House.”

Organizers expect 5,000 to 6,000 people to attend the seven-day gathering at the Baltimore Convention Center. It began Thursday with ACT-SO, the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics for high school students, but the business of the convention gets underway this weekend. Sunday morning, for example, will feature a seminar “Six Months into the Trump Presidency: Strategies of Progressive Legal Organizations.”

The NAACP, which is headquartered in Baltimore, had invited Trump to speak, as it has previous presidents, a spokesman for the organization said.

"We have declined but look forward to dialogue with them," said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman.

Tessa Hill-Aston, who heads the Baltimore City NAACP chapter, has been trying for years to bring the convention back to town. In fact, she mistakenly announced in 2014 that the city had been selected for 2016, but it was just one of the finalists for the gathering, which instead went to Cincinnati.

“I got bumped,” she said. “But when you’re working on events, you always wish you had more time to prepare, so we had another year.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” she said, and noted a recent trip downtown where hotels told her they were booking up. “I’m happy as I can be — there’s lots to showcase in Baltimore.”

The convention’s arrival in Baltimore is particularly timely: On Monday, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to speak at the convention about how the Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement has changed since Trump’s election — something the city experienced first-hand.

In January, in the final days of President Obama’s administration, Baltimore officials entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department to reform the city’s Police Department. But the effort has seen less support from Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

The Justice Department investigated city police after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in custody. Investigators reported that officers routinely engaged in unconstitutional and discriminatory practices, largely in the city’s poor, black neighborhoods.

But Sessions has expressed “grave concerns” over such decrees and tried, unsuccessfully, to delay its implementation.

“We are at a pivotal moment right now,” said Ngozi Ndulue, the NAACP’s senior director of criminal justice programs. “We’ve had really strong federal leadership trying to move forward on criminal justice reform, but now with the Trump administration, there’s really a clear signal people are interested in going backward.”

The number of black men dying at the hands of police is a concern to the NAACP, Russell said. While saying he did not want to draw too close an equivalence, he noted that lynchings and other violent acts against blacks motivated activists to found the NAACP 108 years ago.

“We have the responsibility to raise issues of civil rights and social justice with our government,” Russell said.

Convention goers will address a range of issues: mass incarceration, voting rights, health care, economic development, the environment and education. The NAACP will release a report of a task force that has been studying charter schools, which have a strong advocate in a high place: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But the NAACP has several concerns, including that charters may draw funds from regular public schools, and at last year’s convention passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on their expansion.

“We’re not saying we hate charter schools,” Russell said. “But they have to be part of the public education provided in an equitable and accessible format.”

Several Washington lawmakers are expected to speak, including Maryland’s senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, their Senate colleagues Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Tammy Duckworth, and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore.

Other participants include the Georgetown professor and author Michael Eric Dyson and the Baltimore-based Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson.

With Gov. Larry Hogan out of the town for much of the duration of the convention, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford will attend instead, spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said. Mayor Catherine Pugh will welcome the conventioneers to town.

Several celebrities will participate as well, including Iyanla Vanzant, the inspirational speaker, actor Danny Glover, “Black-ish” actress Yara Shahidi, and Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed Jackie Robinson in the movie “42.”

Boseman stars as Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall in a new movie to be screened as part of the convention before its wider release later this year.

“Marshall” tells the story of an early case fought by Marshall, who before becoming the first black Supreme Court justice was an NAACP attorney.

The NAACP has been in the midst of what Russell calls a “re-imagining” of the organization as it seeks to attract more young members, as well as to remain relevant at a time when groups such as Black Lives Matter have drawn more of the spotlight. As part of the revamping, the board of directors in May dismissed its president and CEO, Cornell Brooks, but has yet to replace him.

“If we’re going to be around another hundred years, how do we adjust?” Russell asked. Board members have embarked on what he calls a “listening tour” to get ideas on how to reshape the organization.

Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman from Baltimore who served as NAACP president from 1996 to 2004, said he hopes the board hires a new leader soon.

“You’d like to have more consistency,” said Mfume. There have been three presidents and an interim since his tenure.

While much of the NAACP’s work is done through its local branches, Mfume said, the NAACP has a national role to play as well.

“They ought to be the moral conscience of the nation,” said Mfume.

Mfume and another former president, Ben Jealous, currently running for Maryland governor, will speak at the convention.

In Baltimore, Hill-Aston said she wants to make sure local, minority-owned businesses get a share of the business that the convention brings to town. She invited restaurants and caterers that might be too far afield for conventioneers to patronize to set up shop in an open-air food court on Pratt Street between Light and Charles Monday through Wednesday. Among the vendors offering their fare — to the general public as well as convention goers — are Terra Cafe, Land of Kush, Up in Smoke and the students from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School’s culinary program, who recently had a pop-up burger restaurant at R House.

While the workshops and speeches will largely be held at the Convention Center, some receptions, movie screenings and socials will be held at nearby hotels, the Horseshoe Casino, Landmark Theatres and Power Plant Live.

On Sunday morning, conventioneers are invited on a 4 1/2-mile bike ride that will loop through downtown, Jonestown, the Inner Harbor. Federal Hill and the Otterbein neighborhood.

A parallel schedule of youth and college events is designed to engage younger people, which the NAACP hopes to attract and retain.

“We want them to replace us,” Hill-Aston said.

This is the fifth time the NAACP has held its annual convention in Baltimore, which became home to its national headquarters just over 30 years ago. In addition to 2000, the convention was held here in 1914, 1936, and 1986.

Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism promoter, said it expects the convention to have an economic impact of more than $6 million, with attendees spending money on hotels, restaurants and attractions and paying the city’s amusement tax.

Al Hutchinson, Visit Baltimore’s president and CEO, said that tourism suffered in the wake of the 2015 rioting but has begun rebounding. Tourism officials have been working to attract diverse conventions, he said, and sees the NAACP as a major one. Last weekend, the city hosted the biannual gathering of Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first black Greek-letter group, and in August, will welcome another African-American fraternal organization, the Elks, for its national convention.

Hutchinson said the NAACP’s convention is meaningful beyond the economic boost because it has the prestige of being the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group.

“And they’re headquartered in Baltimore,” Hutchinson said. “They’re coming back home.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and John Fritze contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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