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HISTORIC PRESENCE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Today ends the NAACP's fourth-ever convention in Baltimore. Those gatherings in Baltimore over a span of 86 years reflect human progress but its failure, too.

Some of the most noxious problems deliberated over by the earlier Baltimore conventions - lynchings, Jim Crow, apartheid - have long been absent from the agenda, relegated to history. But other issues - principally economic disparity and deprivation, vexed this year's conventioneers as much as those at all the earlier Baltimore meetings.

The first Baltimore NAACP convention occurred during the organization's infancy, barely six years after its birth. Conventioneers, numbering perhaps 2,000, discussed lynchings in the South, segregation, education and political and civil rights. The majority press paid them hardly any mind. In The Sun, the convention started as Page 5 news and slipped from there. The black press was far more attentive. It was The Afro-American Ledger rather than the majority media that reported a philosophic divide at the convention about the most effective path to racial justice.

Several white speakers friendly to the cause of blacks, including a U.S. senator and Dr. Howard Kelly, an eminent gynecologist and one of the original professors at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, asserted that blacks could best achieve racial progress by practicing "clean living" -- staying sober, acquiring property and otherwise displaying good citizenship.

Joel E. Springarn, one of the NAACP's founders, took issue with this bland prescription. To a cheering crowd at the Lyric on the convention's opening night, he said that the Negro had long been urged "to be a decent citizen, get a bank account and buy property, and that he would then enjoy the rights that other citizens have." Instead, Springarn, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University who later became an NAACP president, blacks had only suffered further erosion of their rights. Going along quietly was a failed strategy, he asserted.

Subsequent sessions of that convention were held in some of Baltimore's most august African-American churches, including Sharon Baptist, Union Baptist and Sharp Street Memorial. The highlight was to be the closing ceremonies scheduled at McCoy Hall at Johns Hopkins University, even though it did not admit black students at the time. However, when conventioneers showed up that Tuesday evening, they found the building locked and dark. Chagrined and humiliated, they were forced to retreat to the Bethel AME Church, where they were to hear the convention's most newsworthy speakers, Charles Bonaparte, a former U.S. attorney general, Belle LaFollette, wife of the populist senator from Wisconsin, and Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the New York Post, which the Afro-American described as "one of the fairest papers in the country in regard to the Negro."

Difficult 1936 meeting

The Baltimore convention in the summer of 1936 was a far more tumultuous affair. Again the black press gave the most extensive coverage, although even the Afro-American was still preoccupied by - and smarting from - the shocking defeat two weeks earlier of boxer Joe Louis at the hands of Max Schmelling.

The convention also occurred on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. It was a time of realignment for America's black electorate. "That was an important period that marked a change in the allegiance of blacks from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party," said Ron Walters, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Maryland who spoke at this year's convention.

But at that 1936 convention, the allegiance to the Democrats was still tenuous. Ralph Bunche, then a Howard University professor, told conventioneers that he regarded the Democrats as the lesser of two evils, not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement of the Roosevelt administration. At the convention, which occurred in the depths of the Great Depression, there was much recrimination about blacks receiving less economic relief than whites.

Harold Ickes, a close adviser to Franklin Roosevelt who was secretary of the interior, sought to defend the administration during his speech at the Sharp Street Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church. He asserted that no president since Abraham Lincoln had been as supportive of blacks as had Roosevelt.

Perhaps that was true, wrote a young Clarence Mitchell in an Afro-American column, but the standard wasn't all that high. Mitchell of Baltimore, who would later become one of the NAACP's most revered officials, said Roosevelt had been particularly deficient in his failure to pass an anti-lynching law. In the year 1935, at least 20 lynchings occurred in the country.

"It is not sufficient," Mitchell wrote, "for the leader of a nation so great as ours to be merely a congenial, liberal-minded individual. In addition, he must be courageous enough to speak out and act in the interest of all the people."

That convention also marked the increasing prominence of Mitchell's future wife, Juanita Lillian Jackson, a youth leader at a time when the NAACP was urging greater participation by the young in the cause of civil rights. Other Baltimoreans who attended the convention were Thurgood Marshall and Enolia Pettigen, later McMillan, the long-time president and grand dame of the Baltimore NAACP, who also attended this year's convention.

Just as the earlier convention had been marred by the embarrassment at Johns Hopkins, in 1936 the front page of the Afro-American reported an indignity to one of the attendees. Even though the mayor and governor had promised that the region would be a gracious host, J.W. Sanford, the president of a historically black college in Oklahoma, found himself turned away when he went to buy a new suit at the May Company, a downtown department store. The store didn't cater to blacks, he was told.

"I am still trying to reconcile the picture of Baltimore as the Mayor painted it," he told the Afro-American. "All my life I have lived in the South, but never before have I encountered such an attitude in any dry goods store."

The 1936 convention reflected the turmoil in the world at large. Speakers warned of the danger to blacks of Fascism, and some voiced the fear that America could be susceptible to a takeover from the right wing. A well-known communist at the time, Angelo Herndon, urged greater militancy. One minister from Pennsylvania even suggested that blacks fight violence with violence. "If we would organize ourselves and protect our fellows from these lynchings at the cost of [a] few white lives, things would soon quiet down," he proclaimed.

The NAACP convention would not return to Baltimore for another 50 years, on the other side of its great civil rights successes in the '50s and '60s. The convention in Baltimore in 1986 was the first after the organization had moved here the year before.

As the delegates gathered at the Baltimore Convention Center that year, they couldn't mask that theirs was a deeply troubled organization. By then, the NAACP had endured five years of antipathy from the Reagan White House and a significant retreat in federal protections for civil rights.

"The president was openly hostile to the organization," said Walters. "White House access had been one of the ways the organization had achieved some of its biggest successes. So for a president to come into office and attack the NAACP the way Reagan did, that put the leadership in a very tough position. They were taking quite a beating."

On to Mfume

Membership was declining and the organization treasury was in deep trouble, an embarrassment that would emerge in future years and ultimately lead to Kweisi Mfume's selection as president.

But enough was already publicly known to see that the NAACP was reeling as the 1986 convention began. The press was full of stories suggesting that the organization had lost its way, that it had lost sight of its mission. One prominent member, Ben J. Andrews, now a board member from Connecticut, suggested that the NAACP was too backward looking, too willing to rest on the achievements of the past but with no vision about the present or future. Other prominent leaders complained that the organization wasn't getting a grasp on issues of urban poverty or economic development.

The issue that most galvanized the convention that year wasn't a domestic problem at all but apartheid in South Africa. The convention awarded its first W.E.B. Du Bois International Medal to Nelson Mandela, then in his 24th year of incarceration. A representative from Mandela's African National Congress, accepting the award on Mandela's behalf, denounced Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement" with the South African government and instead called for a policy of sanctions.

Reagan rebuffed an invitation to speak, instead sending Vice President George Bush, who had irritated the gathering three years earlier in New Orleans. This time, he was received politely if unenthusiastically.

Conventioneers were warmer to a parade of Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Senators Gary Hart and Joseph Biden. That continued a pattern pronounced since the administration of Lyndon Johnson when blacks had shown their power at the ballot box. From then on, Democrats with an eye on the White House made the NAACP convention an obligatory stop in election years.

That pattern, of course, continued this year with the appearance of Al Gore. And this year, unlike 1992 and 1996, the presumed Republican nominee, George W. Bush, spoke to the convention as well.

Additionally, nearly four dozen national corporations lined up to help sponsor this year's convention, certainly a sign of arrival in the American mainstream. Unlike 1986, the NAACP met this year in relative health and financial stability. Betsy Booker, a volunteer from Baltimore who had attended the 1986 convention as well, said this one was far better organized and "more spiritual" than the last. If there was dissension, it was largely hidden. If there were embarrassing snubs this time around, they have not yet surfaced.

This time around, Baltimore can breathe a sigh of relief.

News researcher Dee Lyon contributed to this article.

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