To the leader of the nation’s largest civil rights organization, it seems like history is running two ways at once — with a black man in the White House and modern-day secessionists threatening to bolt from the country.
“These are times of great opportunity and great peril,” Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told a gathering in North Charleston on Saturday night.
Jealous, who has led the group since 2008, was the keynote speaker for the Charleston branch’s 95th annual Freedom Fund Banquet. And he used the opportunity to warn people of threats to voting rights, inequalities in criminal justice and other challenges that threaten to erode the gains of the civil rights movement and democracy.
“We have to stay focused,” he said, his voice rising.
“If we are going to hold on to what we have, we have to fight hard.”
Jealous said the civil rights group has made tremendous strides in registering voters, mobilizing activists and fighting against the efforts of “retrograde” leaders like Gov. Nikki Haley.
But Jealous cautioned that many threats remain, from a multigenerational recession that keeps many families in poverty to South Carolina’s controversial voter ID law, which cleared a three-judge panel in Washington last month.
Supporters and critics had wrangled over whether requiring voters to present a photo ID would discourage fraud at the polls or disenfranchise minority voters. The approved measure will allow voters without an acceptable ID to cast a ballot by signing an affidavit explaining why that is the case.
Jealous said Haley pushed the law to fight a nonexistent fraud problem at the polls. He urged folks to fight back against such efforts that threaten to erode hard-fought voting rights and instead put the focus on real change, such as finding “a way to get the bottom 98 percent off the fiscal cliff.”
“We have never asked if we will win, only when,” he said. “We dream big dreams and we turn them into bold victories simply by being willing to go the distance.”
A few hundred people attended the banquet, which was held at the Charleston Area Convention Center, but a good number of seats in the hall were empty. Charleston NAACP branch President Dot Scott said the lack of bodies did not signal a lack of support, and that the presence of those donors who could not attend was felt anyway.
The evening began with a procession to the sounds of Ray Charles’ “America,” followed by the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” an anthem of freedom. The song was accompanied by a montage of images showing leaders and luminaries from the black community and achievements of the civil rights movement, culminating with the election of an African-American as president.
While past struggles were invoked by several speakers, they also made it clear much works remains to be done,
The Rev. Joseph Darby, vice president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said that is evidenced in the angry protests after President Barack Obama’s recent re-election; the state’s push for a Voter ID law; and a governor who addresses the dire needs of the state by having workers answer the phone with the greeting, “It’s a great day in South Carolina.”
“We still have a long way to go,” Darby said.
Ed Bryant, president of the NAACP’s North Charleston branch, alluded to tensions between the black community and his city’s police force, including allegations of excessive traffic stops based on racial profiling. He also spoke of Mayor Keith Summey’s decision to appoint a new police chief against this backdrop without a search or input from the community.
Bryant warned those attending the banquet to be cautious driving home, lest they be pulled over and ticketed as well.
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