Connecticut's NAACP is in turmoil.
Fierce and prolonged infighting in Bridgeport and Waterbury has forced state and national officers of the civil rights group to step in and order "reorganizations" of those branches. A bitter election battle two years ago has left lingering wounds in the Hartford branch. Former state and branch chairmen claim there's been a lack of leadership at the state and national levels, declining membership, generational conflicts, and even racist attitudes against Hispanic members.
"I've seen grown men crying — grown men!" Victor Diaz, president of the Waterbury branch until about a month ago, says of some of the vicious internal conflicts.
Russell Williams is a former Greater Hartford NAACP president and he's appalled at what's happening: "It's hard to believe the organization has reached this point."
On the other hand, the current leader of the statewide civil rights organization shrugs off such concerns. Scot X. Esdaile's response when asked to comment about the troubles facing Connecticut's NAACP was, "What controversy?"
Esdaile has been the Connecticut NAACP's top state leader for nearly a decade. He now sits on the organization's national board. According to him, what's happening with the Bridgeport and Waterbury branches is a simple restructuring that many organizations and groups need to go through periodically.
"We have to do it like everybody else has to do it," says Esdaile. "People change, leadership changes... We have some problems, but everybody has problems... We're keeping moving on," he insists.
The question is, moving in what direction?
Connecticut's oldest civil rights group has experienced its share of infighting and controversy in the past.
In 2001, the national NAACP overturned an election result for the presidency of this state's chapter. Ben Andrews, a prominent state and national leader in the organization, was accused of rigging the voting to favor his hand-picked candidate.
Andrews was a member of ex-Gov. John G. Rowland's infamous Republican "Rainbow Ticket" in 1998. Several of the people on that GOP election slate (including Rowland and Andrews) eventually ended up in prison on corruption charges.
The current series of controversies and insider feuds seem to be taking the organization to a whole new level. The Rev. Gill Ford, national director of unit administration for the NAACP, says national officials feel required to step in and reorganize less than 1 percent of its 1,700 branches.
What bothers some NAACP members is that all the infighting here may be undermining the organization's ability to take effective action on all kinds of serious issues facing Connecticut's minority communities.
Issues such as racial profiling, for example. It appears doubtful that East Haven (the target of federal police abuse investigations and federal reform orders) is the only Connecticut community where cops are singling out Latinos and African-Americans for unfair attention. Williams and others insist far more needs to be done about the vast income and educational gaps between rich white suburbanites and poor inner-city people of color.
The Connecticut chapter has recently signed on to a national NAACP campaign to shut down the worst-polluting urban power plants in the nation because minorities living close to them are the most hurt by the pollution. But those plants have been around for a long, long time and so have higher rates of asthma for nearby urban minorities.
Diaz, 34, was the first Dominican-American branch president in the history of the Waterbury branch and the nation. His election was touted by national NAACP officials as evidence of their push to represent all minorities. But he says some African-American members in Waterbury undermined his efforts by telling people "not to show up to some of my fundraisers because I was Hispanic."
"With me being Hispanic, you'd be surprised at how much support I didn't get because of that alone," says a frustrated Diaz. "You can't say you're fighting racism when you're [confronting] some of those same issues internally."
Adding to the difficulties, according to Diaz and other Connecticut NAACP members, is the resistance by some veteran civil rights activists to allowing a younger generation to take over leadership position
Jimmie Griffin thinks the NAACP's generational challenge "runs both ways." He is a former state president of the organization (2001-04) and a former head of the Waterbury branch, and was suspended from membership by the national board last November for going public with his criticism of local NAACP officials.
Griffin believes some younger people don't think of the NAACP as an organization that can have a major impact anymore, while the "older generation is not giving up leadership roles."