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The 110th annual NAACP convention opened in Detroit Saturday with calls to increase voter participation, tackle economic issues affecting African American communities and confront racism.

"When we were last here we tried to bury the N-word," said NAACP Chairman Leon Russell during an opening news conference Saturday. "This year, once and for all, we hope to have a real conversation about racism in the United States of America. We want to talk about what part public policy plays in racism in the United States and we want to talk about what role the NAACP ... plays in trying once and for all to eliminating racism." 

The NAACP last held its national convention in Detroit in 2007.

Russell said it is fitting that the NAACP is gathering here again, saying "we have a history in this city" citing various court challenges including the 1925 Ossian Sweet case which ended in the acquittal of the black physician and some family members who fought to protect themselves against a white mob when Sweet moved his family into a white neighborhood on Detroit's east side.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who grew up in Detroit, said a "xenophobic and racist climate (is) germinating from the White House," citing recent controversial remarks from President Donald Trump directed at four freshmen members of Congress including Detroit Democrat Rashida Tlaib.

Johnson added: "If there is ever a need for the NAACP it is now."

Trump was heavily criticized and labeled a racist by some for telling the four women of color to "go back" to where they came from.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, said during the newser, "Mr. President, we ain't going nowhere."

Anthony said other issues such as health care, education, incarceration rates and economic development also need to be discussed.

Trump declined an invitation to speak at the convention.

Johnson said mobilizing voters to take part in the election process and protecting voters' rights is a key role for the NAACP.

Democratic presidential candidates are expected to address the NAACP convention during a forum Wednesday.

Vice-chair of the NAACP Karen Boykin-Towns said African American women are a big segment of voters and politically engaged.

"Black women are a voting bloc like no other," said Boykin-Towns Saturday.

Ten thousand people are expected for the convention at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit, pumping an estimated $11 million into local economy.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was among the officials who attended the news conference Saturday to open the convention, which runs through Wednesday.

Comerica Bank used the occasion to announce a citywide financial education initiative, which includes a series of financial literacy workshops across Detroit beginning next month.

Michael Cheatham, vice president of Michigan Corporate Contributions, said indicators of financial well-being tend to be lower in communities of color. He said he hopes the workshops and partnership with the NAACP will help improve the financial literacy of those communities. 

"The more we can pour this information into those communities, the more empowered they'll be," Cheatham said. "The great thing about financial education is that it can be carried throughout the family. So we're hoping to not only impact the person sitting in the classroom, but also their families and generations going forward." 

James Coney, 70, said he came all the way from Merritt Island, Florida, to enjoy the exhibits at Cobo Center. Coney also said he hopes the NAACP will address issues he sees facing the black community.

"Economic empowerment is very important," he said. "Predatory lending is another one I'd like to see them talk about."

Detroit resident Carla Spearman, 57, said while she did not come to see any particular issue addressed, she was excited to see what organizations at the convention had to offer.

"I'm just here going around to see the booths and see what all is happening in Detroit right now," she said. 

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2027

slubbers@detroitnews.com

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