At 103 years old, the Memphis Branch NAACP is eight years younger than the national organization, whose president said here Saturday that the core strategy of the nation’s oldest civil rights group continues to be voting efforts to change policy.
Acknowledging the need to protest the law-enforcement killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and others, Derrick Johnson, who also serves as CEO, put this question to the virtual audience attending the Memphis Branch NAACP’s Freedom Fund series event:
“How do we stop talking loud and saying nothing and realize that we have to do more?”
The “more” voiced by Johnson, special guest and former U.S. Sec. of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and others was to engage the process of voting.
“We can protest until we are blue in the face,” said Tennessee NAACP President Gloria Jean Sweet-Love, “but if we don’t get out and vote, it doesn’t make a difference.”
Johnson stressed that voting is not a single-day action.
“We go to the vote so people can walk into office carrying the values that our lives matter, carrying the value that structural racism exists and must be changed, carrying the value that collectively, at this moment, we have to as a nation make a decision:
“Are we going to move forward into the future, or are we going to go back to the reality that we know all too well?”
Castro, who was also a former 2020 Presidential candidate, emphasized the importance of making an actual plan to vote.
“I say have a plan because across this county in states and in DC you have people that are trying to suppress the vote, especially of African American voters,” he said.
Castro also encouraged voters to consider if their lives have been made better under the current administration and to vote for the things that matter most to them and their families.
“People should be thinking about their healthcare, their child education. They should be thinking about the job they have or don’t have. They should be thinking about how hard hit their communities have been and the fact that there hasn’t been more done.”
During the two-hour-long event, the Memphis Branch NAACP highlighted some of the organization’s accomplishments within the past year, including the most recent call to end the state of Tennessee’s Nathan Bedford Forrest Day and the push to extend absentee ballot voting.
In June, a judge ruled that Tennessee must give all registered voters the option to cast a ballot by mail.
The local NAACP branch also has called out the Shelby County Election Commission for a lack of transparency related to voting practices, specifically involving voters who may have mistakenly turned in incomplete voting applications.
In 2018, the Memphis NAACP, along with the Tennessee Black Voter Project, successfully sought a court order against the Election Commission, which was required to have a process for voters to fix any incomplete registration on Election Day.
The Freedom Fund event, which was held virtually in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is the major fundraiser for the Memphis Branch NAACP. Recognized for their service were the event co-chairs: Shelby County Assessor Melvin Burgess II, Regional One Health Chief Administrative Officer Tish Towns and Latino Memphis Executive Director Mauricio Calvo.
Deidre Malone, former Memphis Branch president, was presented the President’s Award.
Castro was presented with a Game Changer Award for his work in black and brown communities. He acknowledged the need for more accountability from elected officials.
“It takes people with the courage to make the right decision to stand up to pressure, to actually improve the lives of folks that they said they would serve when they were elected to office,” Castro said.
“People need to see the difference that you make when you are in that office. If their lives don’t change, then they are going to say: ‘It’s all the same. It doesn’t matter whether I vote for this person or I don’t vote at all.’”
Johnson embraced Black Lives Matter and other groups protesting as a way to combat racial inequality.
“We’re going to love them. We are going to embrace them. We are going to support them because those are our children,” he said.
“Those are our folks. So what if they decided to take a strategy different than ours? … We need to embrace and protect them. And when someone comes up against them, speak out for them.”