Word of Former Pres. George Herbert Walker Bush’s passing opened a door to a space in my mind where I had stored memories from 35 years ago. I used a different name then, Leroy Williams Jr.
Under that byline, I wrote a string of stories that appeared in The Commercial Appeal newspaper from July 11 through July 16 in 1983. I was in New Orleans covering the NAACP’s 74th annual convention.
The last story in that series ran under this headline: “Reagan Sincere, Bush Tells Chilly NAACP.” I didn’t write the headline. I wrote the narrative that brought a 28-year-old journalist, who defined himself as a “black” man, within earshot and clear sight of the vice president of the United States, George Bush.
That 1983 experience mirrored much of what we have been reading about President Bush since his passing: He was a great compromiser and calm statesman unafraid to cross the divide.
And as he came to the convention, he encountered an organization that was undergoing an internal crisis.
Memphis-born Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, at that time executive director of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, had been suspended by then-NAACP Board Chairman Margaret Bush Wilson, who subsequently was removed from that position, with Hooks being reinstated. That drama played out in Brooklyn, N.Y. and I’d been there reporting on it as it unfolded.
The struggle was part of a multi-themed backdrop to the convention, which took place amid political jockeying by Democratic Party hopefuls eager to take on President Ronald Reagan. Amid the buzz was speculation that the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was leading a “Southern Crusade” to register “black” voters, would make a historic run for the presidency, perhaps as an independent.
Hooks and the NAACP hierarchy had declared voter registration the group’s No. 1 priority and were refining their voter registration/engagement strategy at the convention. They also were scurrying to accommodate the desires of presidential candidates who wanted to bring their campaigns before the delegates.
An open question was whether Reagan would make an appearance, particularly since Hooks and others viewed his administration as instrumental in “dismantling” the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and overlooking the plight of poor and “black” people. In 1980, presidential-candidate Reagan bypassed the NAACP convention, the only major candidate who chose to do so
A key question debated during the week of the 74th NAACP Convention was this: Was the Democratic Party “the lesser of two evils” and if a movement grew to elect a person of color or support an independent party would that be self-defeating?
“Right now, (the two-party system) is the only crap game in town. We have to get in on it,” argued Harold Washington, who recently had become the first “black” elected mayor in Chicago.
Hooks called for an “overground railroad” en route to registering two million voters in time for the November 1984 presidential election. His keynote address highlighted the NAACP’s keystones: voter registration, education and participation, the fair share economic development program and building support for black institutions.
On the closing day of the convention, two Democratic Party heavyweights – former Vice President Walter Mondale and Ohio Senator John Glenn – voiced their aspirations and credentials to the delegates.
And then Vice President Bush took his turn. Reagan was a no-show.
Media representatives were seated up front. I scrambled for good position and I remember the three-words Bush used to set the context: “Well, I’m here.”
That memory drove me to the Ned McWherter Library on the campus of the University of Memphis on Tuesday afternoon. I searched microfilm and found the front-page story detailing his address/exchange with delegates.
“After looking at the TV coverage that’s come out of this convention since Monday, there were a lot of people betting I wouldn’t show up,” said Bush
Boos rose from different parts of the room and headed Bush’s way as he declared that the Reagan administration had not been lax on civil rights and that those who made the assertion were “wrong, dead wrong.”
Said Bush: “You’ve had your chance all week…How about giving me about 15 minutes?”
That stance drew applause from some in the crowd. Bush continued with this: “Let me be frank. I think a wall of misunderstanding exists between most members of this audience and the Reagan administration and no single speech or action is going to break that wall down.”
Bush invited a fair, open-minded and fact-based assessment of the Reagan administration.
“We’ve made errors in judgment,” he said. “When we’ve seen that we’re in error, we’ve moved to correct our mistakes and we’re open to constructive criticism.”
Talking later to media, Hooks said Bush demonstrated “great courage.” He praised delegates for “listening to what they didn’t want to hear. …
“Mr. Bush had a right to come. I hope the day never comes when the NAACP will not listen.”