Stepping up, speaking out Advocate: Harford County NAACP President Janice Grant has propelled herself into the midst of one of the Army's worst scandals to protect the civil rights of the accusers and accused.

March 14, 1997|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Janice Grant is no stranger to the fight for civil rights.

As a girl, she and her seven siblings were taken to NAACP meetings by her mother. As a young woman in the civil rights movement, Grant took part in Freedom Rides in the South.

Now, the 63-year-old president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Harford County branch has another cause: the treatment of soldiers in the investigation of sexual improprieties at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"You can't be as old as I am, having seen the things that I have, and not feel compelled to do something," Grant, an ordained minister, said recently. "Those men and women were asking for my help."

Grant has propelled herself into the midst of one of the Army's biggest scandals, arguing that the Army is unfairly targeting black drill sergeants on charges of sexual misconduct at the Ordnance Center and School.

She and other NAACP officials -- backed by some members of Congress -- have called for an independent investigation of the scandal. To date, 56 women have accused male superiors of sexual misconduct; seven sergeants and one captain have been charged with crimes ranging from rape to threatening witnesses.

Grant was the first to call publicly for an investigation of the Army's handling of the cases. She acted after receiving calls from parents of soldiers worried about the investigation.

"I had been getting calls for months before the scandal was ever made public," said Grant, who said her chapter has 700 members. "I remember one woman was so distraught because she said they were trying to pin all types of false accusations on her son."

A media frenzy

The resulting media frenzy caught the soft-spoken, retired school teacher unaware. At her home, decorated with photos of her family and African art, Grant oversaw a press conference that drew national media attention.

Those who know her say Grant is an intensely spiritual and passionate person who stands behind her beliefs -- even in the face of disapproval from others.

"I've found her to be very honest and responsible," said Lena Harris, a Bel Air parent who went to Grant when her children had a problem at school. "She cares deeply about the civil rights of not just blacks, but everyone."

Grant grew up in Aberdeen. Her late mother, Margarette Johns, signed on in the 1930s as secretary to the Harford County branch of the NAACP.

"She was always going to meetings and dragging us along," said Grant. "We grew up with it, and now I'm addicted to the NACCP."

In 1963, she married Woody Grant, a specialist and military police officer stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and the couple honeymooned in Europe. Her husband also was dedicated to the civil rights movement, Grant said -- and that resulted in his being punished by the Army after the honeymoon.

"We had miscalculated the international time difference, and we thought that we had missed Dr. King's March on Washington," Grant recalled.

"But when we got back, we were early, so he drove us to the march -- even though he was scheduled to return to the base. He received an extra month of duty for that," she said.

Special sensitivity

Grant says her husband dealt with racism in the military, so she felt a special sensitivity toward black drill sergeants who complained recently that they were being unfairly targeted in the sex scandal.

When a group of female privates stepped forward to say they were being pressured by investigators to make false statements, Grant hastily organized a press conference, which took place Tuesday.

That day, the phone rang constantly, and Grant hustled to jot down interview requests as television cameras and reporters clustered on her front lawn.

"The response has been incredible," she said, pausing on her couch that morning before venturing outside to meet the press. "Unbelievable."

She had refreshments for the media and persuaded NAACP President Kweisi Mfume to attend the news conference by telling him, "Everyone is here, Mr. President, and it would be wonderful if you were here, too."

Mfume credits her with diligently pursuing the Army to respond to the soldiers' charges.

"It was basically Janice and Leroy Warren [from the Montgomery County branch] who kept insisting to onlookers and the media that something more was going on," Mfume said. "They did that at a great deal of risk to themselves that they would be criticized by members of their communities that said, 'You are protecting these guilty men.' But Janice has maintained all along that the guilty should be punished, but we should not trump up charges in a widespread hunt," he said.

'Mother figure'

Grant insists that she is only concerned with the welfare of the soldiers, who she said view her as a "mother figure."

One recent day, Pvt. Toni More-land rested in Grant's kitchen after a series of interviews in which the 21-year-old soldier recanted charges she made against an instructor. Grant urged the visibly tired young woman to eat.

"It's been a long day for you," Grant said, nudging Moreland toward a table full of pistachio nuts and other food. "You've got to keep your strength up."

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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