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The last time the NAACP held its annual national convention in Detroit, the nation was a year away from electing its first black president and the "N-word" was symbolically buried in a full-out funeral procession that included a horse-drawn casket.

Conventioneers, including minister and rapper Kurtis Blow, were part of a procession downtown in which the racial slur was "laid to rest."

Twelve years later, following Barack Obama's two terms as president, the political landscape of the country has changed markedly as the nation's oldest civil rights organization returns to Detroit this weekend for its 110th national convention.

Obama's successor in the White House, Donald Trump, is being labeled a racist and bigot for tweeting implications this week that four Democratic congresswomen of color should leave the country. Polls also show Americans believe race relations are worsening

Against that backdrop, 10,000 people are expected to attend the Detroit convention, which opens Saturday and runs through Wednesday at Cobo Center.

The gathering comes amidst growing concern among civil rights activists and minority community leaders over racial issues. Among them: complaints of police brutality against young black men, "living while black" 911 calls that target African Americans, the rise of white supremacist groups and reported efforts to suppress minority voting.

"There are still significant challenges that we face as African-Americans in this nation," said historian Ken Coleman, a Detroit resident and author. "Organizations like the NAACP have been at the forefront over the years. The role of the NAACP remains ever so important."

Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Michigan Chapter-Michigan, a Muslim-American civil rights and advocacy organization, said he plans to attend the convention and hopes to see a lot of discussion about the rise of white nationalist groups.

"One of the issues that needs to be discussed is how the faith community is going to deal with the rise of white nationalism and the hate crimes that accompany it," he said. "That's the big issue of the day."

Coleman and local African-American community leaders say it's fitting, given Detroit's history of black struggle and success, that the convention is returning to the Motor City during such a tumultuous time.

"Detroit is special in that we are the largest branch in the association and now we are the only city to host the NAACP Convention for the eighth time," said Kamilia Landrum, executive director of the Detroit Branch NAACP.

Coleman said the NAACP's legacy in the city includes fighting for educational equality and pushing for the hiring of African-American teachers in Detroit Public Schools.

Founded in 1912, the Detroit branch touts itself as the NAACP's largest. The chapter has been at the forefront of several key racial justice cases, including the historic 1925 Ossian Sweet case.

Sweet, a Detroit physician, was put on trial for murder after he and friends fought a white mob that was protesting the young doctor and his family moving into a home in a white neighborhood on Garland and Charlevoix. One person in the crowd was shot to death.

The NAACP hired famed lawyer Clarence Darrow to represent Sweet, who was acquitted. 

Susan Bragg, an associate professor of history at Georgia Southwestern State University, said women played a big part in raising money to fund the Sweet legal battle and support other NAACP causes.

"A tremendous amount of money was raised in Detroit supporting Ossian Sweet," she said.

More legal victories followed, most notably a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1948, in the case of a black couple from Detroit, that outlawed restrictive housing covenants.

Other watershed events in the struggle of Detroit's black community for equality included the 1943 race riots and the 1967 uprising, both of which resulted in the deaths of more than two dozen African Americans. Coleman said reports of police mistreatment of black residents help spark both outbreaks of violence.

Bragg said Detroit has been at the heart of the NAACP's legacy.

"Members of the NAACP were very early on aligned with the (national office of the) NAACP from its early days," she said. "Outreach efforts included bringing in white progressive members."

The five-day convention in Detroit will feature workshops highlighting legal education, federal legislation, public policy and civic engagement on topics such as immigration, voter suppression and education as well as wage parity for women.

“Much has changed since the creation of the NAACP 110 years ago, and as we highlight these achievements during this year’s convention, we cannot forget that we’re still tirelessly fighting against the hatred and bigotry that face communities of color in this country,” said Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO. 

“With new threats emerging daily and attacks on our democracy, the NAACP must be more steadfast and immovable than ever before to help create a social-political atmosphere that works for all.”

With the theme "When We Fight, We Win,” the convention will host a political candidates' forum at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at Cobo featuring top contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Confirmed participants include former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Also participating will be Republican Bill Weld, a former Massachusetts governor.

“The upcoming 2020 presidential election is one of the most pivotal elections in our lifetime and will be heavily influenced by the black electorate," Johnson said. "Issues such as voting rights, immigration, criminal justice reform, student loan debt, the economy and environmental justice persist as crucial concerns for African Americans."     

Other top political leaders set to appear include U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who's scheduled to join a plenary session at 9 a.m. Monday; former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; and Detroit Rep. Rashida Tlaib — one of the four congresswomen targeted on Twitter by Trump.

Walid said it will be important to hear what the Democratic presidential candidates have to say on economic and foreign policies as well as how they plan to deal with "overt and systemic racism."

The local branch and the national office of the NAACP have "stood side-by-side with the Muslim community" on issues affecting both black and Arab Muslims, said Walid.

Also speaking during the convention: U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome M. Adams, and 12-year-old Flint water activist Mari Copeny.

Other convention events include a town hall on "The State of LGBTQ People of Color in America" at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday and a screening of the Aretha Franklin concert film "Amazing Grace" at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Landrum, the Detroit branch's executive director, said she hopes the gathering can draw in former members as well as newcomers.

 "The convention presents an opportunity for some to come home to the NAACP," she said, "and for others to discover what this powerful and impactful organization is about."

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2027

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