As Americans struggle with fear, anger and sadness over police shootings of African Americans in Louisiana and Minnesota – and the horrific retaliation slayings of five Dallas police officers – the NAACP can continue to be a bulwark of nonviolent change and police accountability, current and past leaders said Sunday.
The Sacramento Branch of the NAACP, started in 1916 to protest lynchings, celebrates its 100th birthday with “A Century of Civil Rights,” a multimedia exhibit in building A at the California State Fair. The exhibit features the names and pictures of nearly all of its 42 branch presidents and “victories to remember” from battling Jim Crow to the election of President Barack Obama.
“We continue to be the voice of the voiceless and to make sure our voices are heard,” said current branch President Stephen T. Webb. “We understand we need to share love and brotherhood with each one of us. ... Let’s make sure in Sacramento we are doing what is necessary to not have the violence spread any further.”
The branch was part of a peaceful rally at the Sacramento County jail the night of the Dallas killings, he said. “We think we can sit down at the table and get things done without violence.”
Webb noted that the branch played a critical role in communitywide forums between law enforcement, community leaders and people of color after the riots in Ferguson, Mo., which followed the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
The branch takes anywhere from 15 to 30 complaints a week from citizens who believe they have been subjected to police brutality, unfair incarceration or discrimination at work, school or housing, Webb said.
That focus on justice began in 1916 when the Rev. T. Allen Harvey became the first president.
“There were large numbers of lynching and kidnappings of mulatto boys who were raised as house boys in Sacramento,” said Cynthia Brooks, who developed the free exhibit with Michael Benjamin and Aliane Murphy-Hasan.
The exhibit, based largely on old newspaper accounts and branch records, includes numerous “victories.”
In January 1925, one of the founders of the NAACP, author W.E.B. Du Bois, came to Sacramento to lend his voice to those, black and white, speaking out against the Ku Klux Klan’s presence here, lynchings in Northern California, and inflammatory articles in The Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento Union.
In 1942, the branch organized the Sacramento NAACP Credit Union, one of the first efforts to help African Americans empower themselves economically, said Webb, adding that he hopes to breathe life back into that idea in 2016.
In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, led by Nathaniel Colley, Sacramento’s first full-time black lawyer, the branch filed civil rights lawsuits battling segregation in housing and schools. It successfully campaigned to have the New Helvetia Housing Project integrated, helped get a fair housing bill passed and got local businesses to agree to fair employment practices.
In 1997, branch President Robbin Ware persuaded Sacramento to create a police accountability commission to investigate suspected police abuses. Betty Williams, who served as president from 2004 to 2012, built on Ware’s gains, establishing the free Legal Redress Committee.
After a five-year struggle, the branch successfully sponsored the 2006 Child Protective Services bill that allowed children taken from abusive or unsafe homes to be placed with relatives rather than going directly into group homes or foster care.
In 2007, the branch helped the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department establish an accountability commissioner to review citizens’ complains against law enforcement, and it “was instrumental in the placement of additional cameras within the county jail,” Brooks said.
Williams, who describes herself as one of the “magnificent eight” women who led the branch, said the next step is to look at the District Attorney’s Office to ensure it prosecutes officers who deserve it.
Since 2007, Williams said, the branch has taught 1,500 teenagers and young adults “how to act when stopped by law enforcement under our ‘Know Your Rights Program.’ If you’re stopped, get a name, get a badge number.”
The NAACP nationwide supports legislation covering police use of firearms “so they don’t shoot so quickly,” Webb said. “When the officer in Minnesota shot an African American in his car with a small child and his fiancée in the car, why didn’t he use a Taser?”
The objective of the NAACP is to ensure equality for all citizens, Webb said, noting that a young white man had passed through the exhibit and remarked, “I didn’t know white people could join.”
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