NAACP president: Our mettle is being tested
Detroit -- The key to success in the 2016 election: Making a national election feel local, according to national NAACP president Cornell William Brooks.
Brooks, in town for the Michigan State Conference NAACP’s 80th annual Convention and Civil Rights Conference, spoke minutes before the dinner, whose theme is “Our Lives Matter, Our Votes Count.”
“It’s not just who’s in the White House," Brooks said. "It’s about who’s in city hall.”
Underscoring that point was Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who was seated next to Brooks. Weaver gave an update on the city’s progress in replacing lead-corrupted water lines, work that continues even as the Flint Water Crisis itself falls off of what front pages it once occupied.
Three years after the crisis broke, Weaver said, Flint residents are still using filters and bottled water, a situation Weaver called “sad and a shame.”
“Why do I still call it a crisis?” Weaver said. “When you can't drink the water from your faucet, it’s a crisis.”
This week, Weaver will go to Washington, D.C. to attempt to secure additional funding. Saturday night she will receive the “freedom and justice” award.
“The only way people will have confidence and trust is to see new infrastructure,” Weaver said.
Brooks noted that 2016 is the first presidential election “in 50 years” without the “full protection” of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was rolled back after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 allowed nine southern states -- and two townships in Michigan, Clyde and Buena Vista -- to change voting laws without prior approval of the federal government.
That decision, Brooks said, has left the U.S. Department of Justice “not as well equipped” to counteract last-minute voter suppression efforts, such as late in the year efforts to eliminate early voting opportunities.
Michigan, however, just won a victory in this regard, Brooks said, with the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Attorney General Bill Schuette’s defense of the Michigan law banning straight ticket voting. A federal judge, Gershwin Drain, granted an injunction that prevents the law from applying to November’s election. Subsequent rulings have upheld Drain’s decision or declined to hear the case in favor of the law.
“Michigan is both a metaphor for our challenges and a model for our advocacy,” Brooks said.
On stage for his keynote address, Brooks’ soft spoken demeanor turned to that of a raw-throated fourth generation minister come to answer two questions: “Why now? And why the NAACP?”
Brooks said that as the 2016 election approaches, “the mettle of the NAACP is being tested” by efforts to disenfranchise blacks by way of voter suppression and the school-to-prison pipeline which has created “a generation of young men who can’t get jobs for past offenses.”
Whether a law in Texas that deems a concealed carry permit as sufficient identification to vote, but not a college ID card, or attempts to shutter Department of Motor Vehicle posts in black-populated areas, “Jim Crow 2.0” must be fought, and the NAACP is at the head of that fight, Brooks said.
The school-to-prison pipeline describes a situation where poor schools and disciplinary issues students face in those schools not only fail to prepare young people to join the job market, they steer youth toward dangerous streets and involvement in the justice system from a young age.
Some people who “never had a first chance,” Brooks said, find themselves in need of a second chance, which they’re often not afforded because job applications ask about their criminal backgrounds. Their applications get thrown in the “circular file” before the young man or woman even gets a chance to prove themselves in the interview process.
The NAACP has pushed the “ban the box” effort to remove that question from applications and give more of a chance to people who've made mistakes. In Detroit and a number of other major cities, that effort has been successful and Brooks said the NAACP has had success getting large corporations such as WalMart and Target to ban the box.
“We march, we demonstrate, but we know how to get things done,” Brooks said. “You are not an arrest record or a prison number -- you are a child of God and we will protect your rights.”
Brooks encouraged get-out-the-vote efforts in November, citing he NAACP’s own “souls to the polls” project, which he said succeeded in getting one million voters to the voting booth in 2012.
“Our history is a floor, not a ceiling,” Brooks said of the crowd of about 100. “In an era of voter suppression, voting is an act of civic subversion.”