NAACP volunteers have registered about 2.8 million new voters since last July, President Kweisi Mfume announced yesterday, following a news conference that touched on a variety of issues - from the Confederate flag to education - and kicked off the 91st annual convention.
Mfume said the Baltimore-based national civil rights group has reached roughly 70 percent of its ambitious goal, announced a year ago in New York, to register 4 million voters by November's presidential election. He has said that NAACP volunteers will go door-to-door if they must to sign up people.
Voter registration and politics will likely dominate this year's event at the Baltimore Convention Center, the theme of which is Race to Vote.
But plenty of other issues are expected to surface at the convention, the first one in Baltimore since 1986, when NAACP headquarters was relocated here from New York.
Economic empowerment, health care and education are among topics that will be discussed, Mfume said yesterday during an hour-long news conference at which he was joined by Julian Bond, board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (The convention includes a job fair featuring more than 170 businesses and a free health clinic.)
"If you walk just 12 blocks from this building, you'll be in housing projects where men and women and their children are without health insurance," Mfume said. "They are our members, and they are our neighbors and they are fellow Americans."
He cited diseases that affect blacks in disproportionate numbers, including diabetes, HIV, breast cancer and kidney disease. "Health is a civil rights issue," he said.
Others topics covered in the news conference included efforts to get Congress to pass a hate-crimes bill, the NAACP's opposition to school vouchers and the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina.
Mfume and Bond said a protest planned for today outside the convention center to denounce their stance on the flag issue won't affect the convention. They also said it will not force officials to lift the economic boycott placed on South Carolina in January, which has cost the state an estimated $45 million.
"We welcome them here," Mfume said of the expected 50 marchers from three groups, including the Southern Party of Georgia. "The NAACP is a protest organization. That's how we cut our teeth. But we believe their efforts to make a point will be a failure."
Bond called the marchers racist and "beneath contempt."
On July 1, the Confederate flag was moved from atop South Carolina's Statehouse dome, where it had flown since 1962, to a fenced-in, illuminated site on state grounds.
"This alleged compromise really was not a compromise," Mfume said. He reiterated a claim that famous actors, both black and white, have joined the NAACP in efforts to exclude South Carolina from places where films are shot.
The flag has been at the forefront of NAACP issues for months. But officials, clearly, are gearing up for this year's presidential race - as evidenced by their aggressive voter registration campaign.
Asked whether Texas Gov. George W. Bush can make inroads with blacks by attending the convention, Bond and Mfume said yes.
"Surely, I think he can," Bond said. "I think this is a chance for both Vice President Gore and Governor Bush to sell themselves to African-Americans."
Added Mfume: "People will obviously vote for their pocketbooks, their community, their conscience and for who they believe. This election is still yet to be defined for a lot of people and the candidates."
Mfume said NAACP officials - including members of various branches - will develop a list of questions to ask of Bush and Gore, who will later be "graded" on their responses. This week, NAACP officials also plan to release their annual "report cards" on members of Congress.
Mfume also said officials will continue an investigation into the mysterious death of Raynard Johnson, 17, of Mississippi, whose father found him hanging from a tree in their front yard last month.
Investigators have ruled the boy's death a suicide, but the NAACP and others, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, suspect foul play. The teen apparently dated white girls.
"I think it is a tragic situation that deserves a thorough, accurate and adequate investigation," Mfume said.