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NAACP remains as relevant as ever, new interim leader says

As some question the relevance of the NAACP in the age of Black Lives Matter, the civil rights organization's interim leader closed its national convention on Wednesday by saying that its activist spirit remains as important today as it ever was.

Derrick Johnson, the NAACP's interim president and CEO, called on the hundreds of members in attendance to "speak for our seniors, whom we must care for; all of our young people, whom we must train and develop; all of the disadvantaged, not only in our community but in every community."

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"If we get together, as we have, and if we stick together as we must, we will continue to overcome whatever challenges confront us," Johnson said as he declared the conclusion of the 108th National Convention, held at the Baltimore Convention Center.

An estimated 8,000 delegates and observers from across the country attended five days of workshops, speeches and public presentations and to vote on resolutions that addressed what many speakers called the pressing civil rights issues of the day: criminal justice, voting rights, health care, education and more.

Attendees voted Wednesday to approve 31 resolution submitted by local units from across the country.

The voters reaffirmed and updated the NAACP's "strong support" for quality public education, voiced support for criminal justice reforms including bail reform, and its opposition to the current effort by Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Replacement bills under consideration in Washington would lead to "outrageous cuts" leaving 33 million people without health insurance, said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau and the organization's senior vice president for advocacy and policy.

Shelton said bail reform is crucial because the current system is discriminatory on the basis of race and class.

Panels and workshops addressing such issues dominated the convention's final morning, as many experts warned delegates that, in the age of President Donald Trump, minority Americans stand at a crossroads.

In a panel on voting rights, Sherilynn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said "we are truly on the precipice of losing this powerful tool that our forebears died for" — the right to vote.

She cited states such as Texas and North Carolina, which have instituted more stringent voter indentification requirements over the past four years, and cast the Pence-Kobach Voting Rights Commission — the panel Trump appointed to investigate what she called "the myth of voter fraud" — as another in a long line of efforts to suppress the minority vote.

"It is about race. We have to hold onto that understanding," Ifill said.

Becky Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association, and Loretta Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, introduced the education issue with a pair of impassioned speeches on the need for quality public schools.

Each described the current moment in dramatic terms, castigating Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, as leaders whose policies threatened to worsen a system that is already structurally racist.

"We need you to confront a secretary of education who is determined to destroy public education," Pringle said of DeVos.

Johnson said "the fight ahead" for quality public education must include a fight for "investment" in public schools, and that the battle "will not be easy — not with who we have in that White House."

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She said it's not necessary to "do away with charter schools or do away with magnet schools" in the process, but that all public schools should be transparent and accountable.

A task force that had spent months traveling the country to research the effectiveness of charter schools then presented its findings.

The panel, dubbed the NAACP Task Force on Quality Education, echoed Johnson's view — that while many argue that charter schools drain needed resources from traditional public schools, and some remain "discriminatory" based on students' behavior or relative academic strength, some are highly successful, especially in states that exercise legally mandated oversight.

"We can't condemn all charter schools. That genie is out of the bottle," said Alice Huffman, the former longtime president of the California NAACP and chair of the task force. "But we have to make sure there is some visible governing authority."

In his closing remarks, Johnson, who was promoted to interim president the day before the convention, referred to the NAACP as "the conscience of the nation" and called on delegates to remember the mission that has driven the organization since its founding in 1909.

"I'm here to serve because we represent the uniqueness of our community," he said. "And that uniqueness is a consciousness that has kept us together for centuries ... As it says in Proverbs 31:8, who will speak for those who cannot speak for themselves?"

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