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Mass. attorney ‘elected’ head of NAACP Boston

Bridgit Brown and Russell Contreras
Mass. attorney ‘elected’ head of NAACP Boston

Hundreds of NAACP members lined up at the Roxbury Community College media center to vote Monday for a new president of the Boston branch of the legendary civil rights organization. Michael Curry was the unofficial winner. (Eric Esteves photos)

A Brockton attorney has defeated a longtime civil rights activist to become the next president of the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Unofficial results Monday showed that attorney Michael Curry edged out former state Sen. Bill Owens by fewer than 80 votes in the Boston’s chapter’s first contested election in a decade. Both candidates billed the election as a referendum on the future of one of the nation’s oldest NAACP chapters.

The election was held Monday at Roxbury Community College (RCC). NAACP officials say it attracted nearly 500 members to vote.

The 43-year-old Curry is legislative affairs director for the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and succeeds Karen Payne, who stepped down earlier this year to pursue and unsuccessfully run for state representative.

The vote will not become official until all challenges are reviewed by the NAACP’s national branch. Former Boston Branch President Leonard Alkins said that either candidate has five days to challenge the results and then the NAACP’s national board has another 30 days for review. “It could be as early the middle of December or as late as the end of January,” Alkins said. “We will not know the election results until then.”

In the meanwhile, most of those who stood in line for as much as two hours were very pleased at this year’s turnout.

“People have been complaining about the lines being too long, but I think that’s a good thing,” said Adler Elecian who was running for Boston branch treasurer. “ Last year this process was done in an hour and it’s so exciting to see so many people come out to vote.”

Boston at-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley was especially heartened.

“It’s beautiful,” Pressley said. “I believe in Michael Curry’s leadership for a 21st Century NAACP. What I also think this demonstrates for anyone that has had an iota of doubt in their mind that the NAACP is still relevant. I don’t think that this many people show up to cast a ballot in an election that is irrelevant if they don’t believe that there is room and a capacity for this iconic civil rights institution to still play in empowering and advancing our community.”

State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry was equally impressed. “This is an amazing turnout,” she said as she stood outside. “You see folks from all walks of life, young and old. It’s incredible. People are coming out to make their voices heard and I think that is so important.”

The bottom line, she said, “is about the communities of color and how we are going to come together to try and shape the direction of this city and really make some policies that are going to affect our lives.”

Monday night’s voting at RCC comes as some members of the venerable civil rights group say the Boston chapter is not doing enough to reach out to younger potential members nor speaking out more on the issues of the day. That is affecting the NAACP’s chances of growing in the Boston area and how it can address civil rights complaints, said member Marchelle Jacques-Yarde.

“The Boston branch does need a lot of work,” said Jacques-Yarde, 28. “I feel that it has faded into the background and it’s time to re-engage with the community.”

Acting NAACP Boston President Julia Hardy Cofield said the Boston chapter has remained active on numerous fronts, including registering new voters and driving elderly voters to the polls. “The general consensus among members is that the NAACP in Boston has been doing absolutely nothing,” said Cofield. “That could not be further from the truth.”

Next year will mark the Boston chapter’s 100th anniversary.

Both Curry and Owens and their supporters campaigned aggressively through social media, radio and community newspapers as they sought the two-year term. Members say it’s been years since they’ve seen such an active campaign for the NAACP Boston chapter’s presidency.

Curry’s apparent victory was made more difficult because of the opposition to his candidacy by Juan Cofield, president of the New England area conference of the NAACP and Boston branch treasurer.

Cofield and others recruited Owens to run against Curry. A native of Demopolis, Ala., Owens, 73, came to prominence in the late 1960s as director of the Community Education Project of the Urban League, co-founder of the Boston Education Alliance and director of Jobs and Employment for Self-Improvement, a statewide program sponsored by the University of Massachusetts.

Owens entered the Legislature in 1972 as the state representative from Mattapan’s Ward 14. Two years later, he bested fellow state Rep. Royal Bolling Sr. to become the first senator from the newly formed Second Suffolk District.

But by all accounts, the NAACP’s voting process was not smooth. Questions arose over the handling of online registrations. Because of a computer glitch at the National office, applicants for the Boston branch received errant code numbers. That mistake disqualified an uncounted number of applicants from voting in this year’s election.

To ensure that those votes were not disqualified, a petition was taken where organizers say several hundreds applicants filed a complaint.

But the long lines touched a nerve among some of those patient enough to wait. “It was horrible; it was too long,” said David B. Eastmond, co-founder Road to Redemption. “People left because they had other appointments, and I thought it was sad for the NAACP to conduct their business like that.”

Not all was negative.

“The process could have been improved,” said Janet Humdy Morrison as she stood in line. “One nice thing is that there are people who are interested in the NAACP, that it is not dead, that it is alive and well and that’s a good thing.”

Sheneal Parker said she too was a bit frustrated when she learned of potential problems with online registrations. “But I was still able to vote tonight,” she said. “I was able to cast a ballot and then I went downstairs and signed the petition to challenge the process. It was such a wonderful feeling to see everybody out here engaging in the voting process.”

Under Alkins, Curry began his community organizing work for the NAACP. During his 12 years of membership, he chaired the political action committee for four years and spent five years as chair of the communications committee, writing speeches for Alkins, taking part in the development of policy papers, and standing in on his behalf at committee hearings and public and private events.

Curry says that Alkins would say to him, “Pick an issue and just go at it.”

His first campaign was “Knock Across Boston” in 2000, which was modeled after the national organization’s “Knock Across America” campaign that focused on getting communities of color throughout the country to vote.

“I wanted to be as methodic as candidates are when they’re trying to get out the vote,” Curry has told the Banner. “We picked blocks, and created block captains. We used provocative images that drew on the interest of a young person or an older person, like the one with the kids getting hosed in Birmingham. We had as a caption: ‘We fought so hard for it, yet we still don’t do it.’ ”

Coincidentally, the city of Boston and the general elections saw the greatest increase in voter turnout among communities of color that year.

“There was no doubt in my mind that the success of that campaign was due to the practice of strong collaboration and the use of tools that can effectively mobilize people,” said Curry.   

In reflection, one of the things that he appreciated most about Alkins was his understanding of how young people can motivate each other. “Marketing for today is not like marketing 30 years ago, and Lenny trusted me. He could have been very traditional, but he let us do it.”

Jacques-Yarde, who supported Curry, said many members viewed the election as an opportunity for the next generation to take them helm of the Boston group.

“The next president will have the challenge to unite everyone after the election,” Cofield said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Associated Press