Sinking into an office chair, George N. Buntin Jr. clings to the telephone as a drowning man might grab a life ring. If anyone drowns on this landlocked stretch of West 26th Street, it will be Mr. Buntin -- swamped by the sea of paper on his desk.
Dive into that sea, and you'll find -- message by message -- cries to Mr. Buntin, executive director of the Baltimore NAACP, for help: Help me start a business. Help me find a lawyer. Help me get promoted. Help me just by listening because I feel mistreated.
Listen to Mr. Buntin's end of the phone conversation, and you'll hear his attempts to answer those cries, most often with a patient hearing and a referral to the proper agency.
You'll also hear Mr. Buntin's pleas for money: The city branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is nearly $40,000 in the red, and he must recruit members, sell fund-raiser tickets and solicit donations.
"It's not going well, but we're eternally optimistic," Mr. Buntin, who has been executive director for nearly a decade, said while coming up for air between phone calls one recent afternoon.
"You take these little problems in stride. . . . That's life at the NAACP."
Some phone calls this summer concerned a drama unfolding three miles to the northwest at the NAACP's national headquarters. The drama climaxed Aug. 20 when the NAACP board fired Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. after learning he had made a secret deal to pay a former aide who accuses him of sexual harassment up to $332,400.
The tumultuous end to Dr. Chavis' 16-month stint as head of the NAACP focused more attention on the 85-year-old civil rights organization than it has gotten since the 1960s. Members and outsiders wondered just what the NAACP was doing -- and also what it does in quieter times.
Some answers about what it does can be found at the NAACP branch on West 26th Street.
The NAACP has 2,200 units -- local branches, college chapters and youth councils -- and much of the organization's day-to-day work is done by volunteers working out of their living rooms.
The Baltimore NAACP, which has about 3,300 members, is one of only half a dozen branches nationwide that has paid staff.
The Baltimore branch was formed April 4, 1912, just three years after the NAACP's founding. But it gradually fell into inactivity until Lillie Carroll Jackson reorganized it in 1935. She built the branch's membership to as much as 17,000 after World War II.
A strong-willed woman, Mrs. Jackson fought segregation everywhere from the University of Maryland to the city police force and Druid Hill Park's swimming pools.
With equal vigor, she battled granting liquor licenses to bars in black neighborhoods. She even bitterly opposed making Druid Hill Avenue, then home to black Baltimore's elite, a one-way street on the grounds that the traffic shift would destroy its sense of neighborhood.
When Enolia P. McMillan, a longtime teacher and Dunbar High School vice principal, took over as president in 1970, she recalls people questioning the need for the NAACP. They said all the civil rights battles had been won. But callers who feel mistreated because of their skin color have kept the Baltimore NAACP's phones ringing for another quarter-century.
"Most people respond to crises positively, but when the crisis is over, they sit back and don't realize there will be another crisis caused by their sitting back," she said.
Rodney Orange, a Bethlehem Steel employee who took over as president last year, said, "We see ourselves as a local insurance policy against outright bigotry and even the not-so-blatant forms of discrimination going on."
A lightning rod
He said the NAACP serves as a lightning rod for African-Americans -- the place people call with allegations of discrimination, police brutality and other problems. They may call the NAACP as a first reaction or as a last resort, but they do call, he said.
The local NAACP employs no lawyers, investigators or social workers. Most complaints are referred to government agencies; many pleas for help are passed on to charities that feed and clothe the poor. But the NAACP can exert leverage with bureaucrats and politicians. And it can look for recurring problems that indicate the need for policy changes.
"Our role is to bring people together," Mr. Orange said.
"We're not always able to help with individual cases, and a lot of people get turned off by that, but we just don't have the resources. When folks say what can you do for me, I ask them what are you doing for the NAACP?"
The few keep it going
Mr. Orange estimates that a core group of about 50 volunteers does much of the work -- following up phone calls, nudging officialdom into action, working with youngsters and recruiting members.