A day after the NAACP announced that it would move its national headquarters from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., Baltimore leaders said they were discussing strategies to keep it in the city, and the head of the organization said he has not ruled out a reversal in plans.
The civil rights group announced Monday that it had signed a letter of intent to move into the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs, a District of Columbia government building set to undergo redevelopment.
Derrick Johnson, the group’s president and CEO, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the NAACP’s 64-member board was involved for at least 18 months in discussions about the move and stands behind the decision.
But the agreement indicates that the plan will go ahead “if no obstacles develop,” he said, and does not necessarily represent an irreversible commitment.
“I’m open to any conversation about what could be in the best interests of the organization,” Johnson said. “We’ve never closed the door on any conversation.”
While the NAACP did not give Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young notice of its plans or give him a chance in advance to bargain to retain the organization in Baltimore, Young stands ready to negotiate to keep the group in the city, said Lester Davis, a top Young aide.
”Obviously, the door is open,” Davis said. “We have enjoyed a really good relationship with the organization, and the city of Baltimore will continue to into the future, no matter how they decide to move forward. We are always hopeful.”
Spokeswomen for District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.
Baltimore officeholders and civic leaders expressed disappointment Tuesday about the NAACP’s decision.
Like Young, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a past president and CEO of the NAACP, said he had heard nothing about the move before the organization made its announcement, and Johnson confirmed he did not reach out to Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott. Scott is the Democratic nominee for mayor.
Baltimore leaders agreed a departure from the city would be a mistake on many levels, if only because men and women from Baltimore have played crucial roles in the growth and development of the NAACP over the decades, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Mitchell Jr., U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell and Enolia McMillan.
McMillan was the NAACP’s first female president and was instrumental in bringing the national headquarters to Baltimore from New York in 1986. Two of the NAACP’s most recent presidents, Mfume and Ben Jealous, are from Baltimore.
“It’s unfortunate that a decision to leave Baltimore has been made,” Mfume said. “While no one can tell the NAACP where it should locate, there’s no place in America more enshrined in its history than Baltimore.”
In his statement Monday, Johnson cast the idea of moving as a bid to place NAACP operations “at the epicenter of change,” a place where the organization would be able “to be even more proactive in serving the Black community, and confronting the serious challenges facing the nation.”
Mfume, who served as president and CEO from 1996 to 2004, questioned whether being based in the nation’s capital would have much of an impact.
“Proximity does not equal power,” he said. “There are homeless people living in Lafayette Park across from the White House, and they’re not gaining any influence. The New York Stock Exchange hasn’t moved to Washington. Neither has Silicon Valley.
“I think you build your distinction where you are, over time, through history. The NAACP has been doing that for 35 years here in Baltimore, and we’d like it to stay here in Baltimore.”
Before Johnson told The Baltimore Sun in a Tuesday afternoon interview that he might be open to a change in plans, some in Baltimore already were discussing how to make it happen.
Kwame Rose, a 26-year-old social activist, said that as the city’s young people demand justice and equality, many across the U.S. are looking to them for guidance on police reform and other issues. He encouraged the NAACP’s civil rights leaders to remain in Baltimore, provide input and expertise, and do more to support people on the ground.
He said the organization has kept a low profile in the city, and alluded to a criticism the NAACP has faced in recent years: its leadership is too old, its organization too unwieldy to allow it to respond nimbly to civil rights developments as they happen.
“I would ask and encourage them to stay and empower young people in this city and cities across America,” he said.
State Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said she was brainstorming ideas and hoped to have a chance to implement them alongside Scott. She, too, wants to connect past civil rights leaders to present ones.
One possibility, she said, would be to find out if a collaboration is possible between the NAACP, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, the Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, locations “steeped in the history of the civil rights movement.”
City leaders should consider whether Baltimore can offer the NAACP a vision that allows its headquarters to become more of a destination for visitors, one that better connects the history of civil rights to the challenges of the present.
“Part of the problem is, as the elders die off, you have these new people that don’t have the same sense of history and commitment to the roots of the Black struggle and the civil rights struggle,” Carter said.
She acknowledged that changing the minds of NAACP leaders would call for making the organization a better offer than Washington apparently has.
“We have to look at the offer in D.C. and figure out if there is something we can do to make the offer any sweeter,” Carter said.
Del. Nick Mosby, the Democratic nominee for City Council president, agreed with Rose that the NAACP’s roots in Baltimore, a city at the center of the police accountability movement, gives it an opportunity for synergy that can amplify the efforts of both.
“The city of Baltimore, just like the NAACP, has had an undeniable stamp on progress for communities of color, not just locally, but throughout the country,” Mosby said.
The Rev. Kobi Little, president of Baltimore’s branch of the NAACP, referred questions to the national headquarters about how the decision was made and whether Baltimore leaders were given any opportunity to persuade the organization to stay.
”The Baltimore City Branch has always been the face of the NAACP in Baltimore and we will continue to honor and build on the legacy of those who came before us through engagement, advocacy, service and leadership,” Little said in a statement.
Anthony McCarthy, a longtime Democratic strategist and spokesman for Baltimore elected officials, including most recently the Mfume campaign, said that even though the NAACP has explored leaving Baltimore in the past, to do so now, amidst a modern civil rights movement, would be “tone deaf and insulting to the legacy of Baltimore.”
Johnson said Tuesday that he did not reach out to city leaders before making his announcement because “up until recently, we had nobody in Baltimore to talk to.” He said he “started this process when Mayor [Catherine] Pugh was in office, and there has been a lot of upheaval over the last year and a half.”
Pugh resigned as mayor last year amid a scandal over an illegal book sales arrangement. Young rose from City Council president to become mayor and Scott replaced him as the council’s leader, then went on to win the June 2 primary for the Democratic nomination for mayor.
Johnson said the move in no way suggested a lack of appreciation for Baltimore, a city with, he acknowledged, deep roots in civil rights.
“It’s not at all a negative depiction of Baltimore,” he said. “We’re a national organization, and we have deep history in many areas of the United States, including in New York, in Washington, and across the South. We’re a national organization and the seat of public policymaking is in Washington, D.C.”
The move, which he said has no specific timetable, also would be “cost-effective” for the NAACP because its longtime headquarters on Mount Hope Drive in Northwest Baltimore, which it owns, is in such “disrepair” that it would cost more to rehabilitate the property than it’s worth. The group moved more than 30 employees into temporary space in the Wells Fargo building downtown in late 2019.
A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said the administration is trying to connect with Johnson to discuss the move.
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“The NAACP has been a powerful ally in the fight for equality and justice located in the heart of our state for more than 30 years,” spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver Churchill wrote in an email. “While we hope to continue this partnership regardless of where they are based, the governor’s chief legislative officer Keiffer Mitchell, whose family has a long and proud legacy both in Baltimore and the NAACP, has reached out to Mr. Johnson on behalf of the administration.”