NAACP leader, retiring, still plans to stir things up

November 14, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Enolia Pettigen McMillan surveys her life with great composure and dignity. She's 86 now and she's retiring next month as president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Her life is a sharp reminder of how short the history of freedom has been for blacks in America. Enolia McMillan represents the first generation of her family born free. Her father, John Pettigen, was born a slave on a Virginia plantation. She herself lived more than half her life under rigid segregation in Maryland.

Her hair has been gray for many years now and she looks slight and perhaps vulnerable seated in a rocker in her neat, tidy home on Beaumont Avenue. She has a fine, firm face. And she sits relaxed but quite erect, and with her hands folded neatly in her lap she does seem a bit like the old-fashioned school teacher she was for many, many years.

But when she talks, she projects her continuing strength and clarity.

They started calling her a radical and a troublemaker more than half a century ago. She was fighting for equal pay for blacks and women. She was president of the Maryland State Colored Teachers Association.

"They said I was trying to start something," she says, reflecting on those days.

She was.

"I did start something," she says.

And she's never stopped. She's fought for freedom and equality and opportunity all her life. She can be just as bristly and prickly as ever now that she's preparing to retire. But she's ready to pass on the leadership role to younger people. She took over as president 21 years ago vowing to bring more young people into the chapter. And she's done that, she says.

McMillan, a youthful 86 now, was a sprightly 65 then. She remembers being asked to replace Lillie Mae Jackson in 1969. Jackson had been president of the local NAACP chapter 34 years.

"She just said 'I'm tired. I can't do it,' " McMillan recalls. Jackson wanted somebody to replace her. McMillan insisted on a special election in accord with the NAACP's constitution.

"I figured if the folks wanted me, they could elect me. If they didn't want me, they could forget it. It's hard enough working when people want you.

"And that's what I told the national when somebody suggested that I run for the presidency," she says. "I am not going to campaign, if you all want me, elect me, if not, forget it."

McMillan has this sweet way of summing up her argument with a small gem of epigrammatic wisdom.

She was, in fact, elected national president of the NAACP in January 1969 and served until last February.

"We still have a lot things that are the same," she says when comparing 1990 with 1935, when she first joined the NAACP. She doesn't mind scattering a few chips when she chops through to the heart of the matter.

"For example," she says, "one of our problems then was police brutality. We still have it. We have a case that happened a few weeks ago, a little over a month, you wouldn't believe that it happened in 1990. I'm talking about Baltimore.

"Now, what has changed," she says, "is that we do have blac policemen now. We did not have a single black policeman or policewoman then. We have them now.

"It doesn't make that much difference though. We still have brutality. Well, black policemen figure that they have to be violent when they arrest people just like the white ones. You're important and, boy, you've got to let folks know it . . .

"Black people in office doesn't always correct things."

The NAACP remains the main civil rights organization in America, she says.

"Even though some people say we don't need any now," she says. "If you could come in that office and spend a week there you'd find out we do need more than one civil rights organization."

She talks about achievements of the NAACP. She's surrounded by plaques and citations and certificates and diplomas that attest to her own successes.

"We have made America more democratic," she says, "the way it was supposed to have been at first, by getting laws passed that are fair and democratic, by getting executives sometimes to issue orders that require fairness in certain areas.

"We have sensitized people to discriminatory practices in employment and elsewhere. We have white members, for example, who fight for fairness in the labor unions and what have you.

"We have been able to provide role models for our children and our youth. I should say good role models. We've got some role models now we'd like to get rid of. We've also provided a greater measure of self-respect among blacks."

She knew the days of blanket segregation in Baltimore.

"We couldn't go in restaurants or hotels," she says, "or certain department stores. Some of them would let you come in there but you couldn't try anything on.

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