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NAACP gains ground in WNC communities

fr barberbrooksKatherine Bartel has a long list of reasons why a NAACP branch started in Haywood County a couple of years ago — and the motives go far beyond protecting only the rights of people of color.

“Our Haywood County unit formed in response to the actions of the state legislature,” said Bartel, who serves as secretary of the Haywood branch. “We felt a need to form an action organization because we saw the state refusing to expand Medicaid to make health care available to everyone. We saw public schools being undermined by poor funding and lack of support for good teachers, as well as losing teacher assistants.”

The list of reasons goes on to include witnessing people struggling to live on a minimum wage salary, racial profiling in the application of the death penalty and mass incarceration, immigrants being taken advantage of with no path to citizenship and voting rights being denied to those who are elderly or disabled and cannot get a state ID without assistance.

Avram Friedman, vice president of the NAACP branch in Jackson County, said his unit got started for the same reasons.

“We were moving backwards. People in charge of the state government were taking away things that people had died for during the Civil Rights movement,” said Friedman, who has been a longtime political activist and the founder of the Clean Air Advocacy group The Canary Coalition. “A lot of people were feeling the direct impact on their lives from these backwards motions.”

As the issues being tackled by the North Carolina NAACP broaden beyond racial inequality, so has the organization’s support across the state. In the last three years, five NAACP branches have formed in mountain counties that never had a branch before, including Haywood, Jackson, Transylvania, Yancey and Mitchell counties. 

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Dr. Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said the movement toward the western counties was a great sign of momentum for the Forward Together Movement, which includes the Moral Monday protests occurring in Raleigh for the last three years. He said Western North Carolina’s message to the General Assembly will be clear on June 13 when local NAACP branches, churches and other coalition partners hold a Moral Monday event in Sylva. 

“The NAACP is a justice organization fighting for all North Carolinians,” Barber said. “We were thrilled to welcome five new western NAACP branches into our organization and now we will join them in the far west for Mountain Moral Monday in Sylva as we continue to build this movement across the state.”

While WNC residents often feel isolated from the decision-making process in Raleigh, Barber said the voices of those in Appalachia is and has always been of great importance and influence. After visiting many of the western counties and hearing people’s concerns, he knows mountain residents are more progressive than the legislators give them credit for.

“We couldn’t have Appalachian State and Western Carolina and all the other universities in North Carolina if the South was still behind segregation,” Barber said. “People forget that in 1967 when Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing his freedom march, he organized in the Appalachian Mountains and in the cities because he understood the importance of introspectiveness.”

In addition to Barber’s address, WNC residents who have been negatively affected by the policies being passed in Raleigh will speak at the Moral Monday Mountain event. Barber said speakers include a teacher who has suffered from public education cuts, a disabled woman who has suffered because the legislature refused to expand Medicaid, and others who have witnessed injustices in the system.

“This is a movement that was born in the South, and we cannot afford to be ahistorical. Anti-racism and anti-poverty must be at the heart of our struggle,” Barber said. “We understand that organizing the changing demographics in South — the increase in black and Latino voters and the increase in young voters who vote their futures, not their fears — is connected to the extremist attack we are facing.”


Issues aren’t black and white

So why should WNC residents get involved in the Moral Monday “Forward Together” movement? Friedman said the reason is self-explanatory — we’re all in this together. 

“It’s important to show geographic and demographic diversity if we want to reverse this trend in the General Assembly,” he said. “No, there’s not a large population of black people on the western side of the state, but the same issues impacting poor black communities are the same issues impacting poor, white rural communities.”

Barber agreed that the agenda being pushed by the NAACP and the growing Moral Monday coalition is not limited to race — it never has been. He said the NAACP has always been an organization advocating for policies that are for the greater good of society and against policies that suppress people. 

“The greatest myth of our times is that extreme policies only hurt a small subset of people, such as people of color. These policies harm us all. In North Carolina, we are black, white, Latino, Native American. We are Democrat, Republican and Independent. We are people of all faiths, and not of faith but who believe in a moral universe …” he said. “We stand together to lift up and defend the most sacred moral principles of our faith and constitutional values — we know who we are.”

Barber admits that the NAACP still battles the perception that it is an organization for and by black people. 

Barber and local NAACP leaders are quick to point out the NAACP was started by a group of concerned white people who wanted racial equality for all people — not just African Americans. 

“We think about NAACP as a black organization but historically it’s not — it’s always been a multi-cultural organization,” Friedman said. 

“While the NAACP was created for the advancement of colored people and initially had to do with African American issues, it’s always included all folks of color as well as other minority groups,” said Chuck Dixon, president of the Haywood County NAACP branch. “In 1909 when it started because of lynching, quite a large number of white people were involved in it — the NAACP today looks fairly similar to those initial groups.”

NAACP membership in the western chapters may be predominantly white, but organizers say the units still hold quite a bit of diversity. 

Dixon said African Americans make up about 25 percent of the unit’s 100-plus membership, which is an impressive number given the total black population in Haywood is less than 2 percent. The branch works closely with the two A.M.E. Zion churches in the county and their ministers serve as the branch’s treasurer and vice president on the executive committee. 

“There’s a desire on the part of members to improve race relations and to work together on social justice and equality issues,” Dixon said. 

Dr. Enrique Gomez, president of the NAACP Jackson County branch, was the first Hispanic NAACP branch leader in the state, perhaps even the country, and Friedman, first vice president of the Jackson chapter, is Jewish. 


Building a broad base

Newer chapters in the region have been charged with educating people on important social issues and getting them registered to vote. The NAACP publishes a candidate report card each year to inform voters on where they stand on the issues, and the local chapters have worked hard to disseminate that information. Armed with facts, Barber hopes people will understand the deeper moral issues and stop voting against their own self-interests. 

“We don’t endorse candidates, but we endorse involvement,” Barber said. “I want people to think a little deeper, move a little closer together and feel the movement.”

Barber’s unifying philosophy and message has definitely resonated with a broad spectrum of people and helped expand NAACP’s reach across the state, but misperceptions still prevail in more rural areas. 

Dixon said he hasn’t experienced any blowback from the community about the local Haywood NAACP branch, but there still seems to be a hesitation from people and organizations when it comes to being associated with the NAACP even though they may agree with the organization’s goals. 

“Maybe people still think of it as an extreme activist organization, but we’re a 501C4 — we don’t endorse candidates — we’re a nonpartisan, social welfare organization,” he said. 

The Jackson County NAACP branch began to form not long after the Moral Monday protests started heating up in 2013. Friedman said he and others made strong connections with the NAACP when they helped organize an event in Sylva to honor the 50th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. With encouragement from NAACP, they started the process of securing enough members to form a branch. The branch now has more than 150 members and a very active base of supporters.  

“The impetus was the Moral Monday movement and the fact there was an effort by the General Assembly and the governor to move things backwards in time,” Friedman said. “Starting a new branch is a struggle — it takes a lot of time and energy to maintain the organization but we’re doing well. Membership has dipped a little lately but I’m hoping this event (June 13) will be big boom for the organization.”

The Jackson County branch welcomes members from all over the region but also encourages other counties to start their own branches when possible. Jackson County has made more headway in forming relationships within the community and finding other organizations willing to partner with the NAACP branch to push common objectives. 

“We’ve gotten good feedback from the community and other organizations,” he said. “Sometimes new branches get threats, but we have not so I’ve been very happy with how the community has received us.”

Overall, Dixon feels like the local branch’s work thus far has been successful. Voter registration and early voting turnout was higher than usual in the 2015 municipal election after Haywood NAACP made a large effort in voter education in 2014. Dixon said the group would continue those efforts for the general election in November.



NAACP facts

• Founded in 1909 in New York City, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was one of the earliest and most influential civil rights organizations in the United States. Its mission is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination.

• In 1916, a new field secretary, James Weldon Johnson, began expanding the organization’s membership in the South. Johnson became the NAACP’s first black executive secretary in 1920, by which time membership had grown to 90,000, of which nearly half was in the South.

• In the late 1970s, the NAACP broadened its scope by committing itself to the struggle for equal rights around the world.

• Heading into the 21st century, the NAACP is focused on disparities in economics, health care, education, voter empowerment and the criminal justice system while also continuing its role as legal advocate for civil rights issues.

• The North Carolina Conference of NAACP Branches is 70 years old and is made up of over 100 adult, youth and college NAACP units across the state. 

• The NC NAACP is the largest state conference in the South and second largest in nation.


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