`Doc' Cheatham making a house call at the NAACP

December 27, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

WHEN LILLIE Carroll Jackson took over Baltimore's branch of the NAACP in the 1930s, it barely had a pulse. Ms. Jackson gave it a transplant of energy and passionate commitment to justice.

Her work helped to put the state and the nation on the road to many civil rights victories. The monumental Brown vs. Board of Education decision started, many believe, with a Maryland case pushed by Ms. Jackson.

"God opened my mouth," she said, "and no man can close it."

At a time when too few people, black or white, were willing to stand up for an end to discrimination, Ms. Jackson became a one-woman barrier-busting force. She registered voters, hectored politicians, badgered judges and recruited 20,000 new NAACP branch members. There had been only a handful when The Afro-American newspaper's publisher, Carl Murphy, recruited her to be the organization's leader.

Today, 40 years after the Voting Rights act of 1964, the venerable Baltimore branch has another leader, Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president-elect of the second-oldest NAACP branch in the nation. Like Ms. Jackson, Mr. Cheatham faces a chore of reinvigoration. Membership is in the range of 1,500, he says. Less than half that number voted in the recent NAACP election that encountered enough irregularities to be taken over by the group's national organization.

The new president arrives during a time of transition nationally as well as in Baltimore. Kweisi Mfume recently announced he was stepping down from the national presidency. He had helped the organization erase a debt of several million dollars. At the same time, leaders such as comedian Bill Cosby are calling for a new commitment to the problems of black young people.

Mr. Cheatham says he's ready to tackle both issues and others. The financial health of the branch may need a tonic. It also needs another new dose of energy to pursue old and new problems. In too many arenas of concern, he said, the NAACP has been virtually silent.

"We have a total crisis in our educational system. We have neglected our children," he said. He wants to make Baltimore a national model for NAACP advocacy.

The civil rights organizations of today need to recognize the perils of progress, he says. Black men and women are in the positions of authority that Ms. Jackson envisioned, but they can't get too comfortable with officialdom, he said.

"There has to be a separation between the mayor and the council and us," he said. "The mayor has a responsibility to run the city, and we have a responsibility to make sure he does. We haven't held him accountable. The relationship the NAACP has had with him has been an embarrassment."

Health, he said, must become an NAACP priority. Epidemic drug use continues to demand attention. Diabetes, heart disease and AIDS must be addressed vigorously, he said.

And he wants the NAACP to get involved in this century's voting rights challenge: black men and women disenfranchised because of their criminal records. Until now, he says, the Baltimore branch has done too little to restore the voting rights of what he says are the 60,000 ex-offenders in Baltimore who need help reclaiming these rights.

Maryland, he points out, has not had an admirable history in the area of voting rights. Its legislature declined to ratify the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to blacks after the Civil War. Other, even more reprehensible efforts were mounted to deny black Americans the vote.

Formerly a member of the city's Board of Elections, Mr. Cheatham has worked on voter registration campaigns for more than 25 years. He's the founder of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition. He wants the NAACP to champion a legislative effort to bring ex-offenders back into the process.

Ms. Jackson, midwife to the earlier civil rights movement, would likely applaud her successor's objectives. Then she would hold his feet to the flames.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column generally appears Sundays.

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