Don’t make the mistake of believing we live in a post-racial society, said William Robinson, guest speaker Saturday at the Oberlin NAACP’s 100th anniversary celebration.
“Republicans are in control of both houses of Congress and most state governments,” he said. “Our association is needed right now at the local, state, and national level as much as ever.”
A prominent litigator during the civil rights movement and founding dean of the District of Columbia School of Law, Robinson spoke before a packed banquet hall inside the Hotel at Oberlin.
His talk focused on the process of building the NAACP, victories and setbacks in the fight against racial injustice, and American historical events often glossed over in teachings such as Jim Crow-era race riots that saw entire African-American neighborhoods burned to the ground and their residents murdered.
Whether it was during post-Civil War reconstruction or a “second reconstruction” in the 1870s, Robinson said an aggressive backlash took place just as it seemed African-Americans were on the verge of securing significant steps toward equal rights.
“A black middle class was rapidly developing in the 1890s and it seemed justice, freedom, and equality were just around the corner,” he said. “But that was not the case. Former slave owners responded with a wave of economic coercion and armed violence. A black man’s life was at risk for daring to look a white man in the eye. This was the system of Jim Crow.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, President Richard Nixon employed a “Southern Strategy” to woo the southern states away from the Democrats and into the Republican Party, he said. “President Reagan adopted similar tactics. Under both Nixon and Reagan, the U.S. Justice Department stopped joining forces with NAACP lawyers and their allies.”
The 100th anniversary celebration was also a time to honor those who have contributed to the NAACP in Oberlin.
Claudia Jones was named president of the chapter this spring. She grew up on North Prospect Street and served as associate director of development at Oberlin College for 37 years.
“I feel honored to be a part of this organization at this particular time,” she said. “Now it’s time to keep it going for another 100 years. I live in Lorain now, but my husband and I come back to church in Oberlin every Sunday. My friends say I sleep in Lorain but I live in Oberlin. This is such a wonderful community to be a part of.”
The Rev. Stanley Miller of Oberlin’s Rust United Methodist Church introduced speakers and greeted guests. He served as executive director of the Cleveland NAACP from 2005 to 2011.
“I’ve always had an opportunity to see the hard work put into this organization and the people who truly want change,” he said. “It’s also been great to see an influx of young people and diversity in the NAACP. Look at the faces in this crowd. This is significant and it should always be like this.”
Proclamations from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Lorain County commissioners were delivered by Oberlin NAACP secretary David Ashenhurst and commissioner Matt Lundy.
Lundy touched on the efforts of hate groups to push themselves into mainstream conversation.
“Unfortunately, we’re living in a time where there’s forces trying to divide us,” he said. “We’re living in a time where it’s more common to be nasty and mean than it is to be civil. The NAACP has always wanted people to be treated with dignity and respect and I can’t say enough about the good that the Oberlin NAACP has done over the years.”
Jones pointed to common desires among people of all races that should form stronger bonds.
“A lot of people have hateful feelings because they’ve never gotten to know anyone of a different race,” she said. “If we take the time to get to know each other, we can find out we’re all the same. We care about the same things: good education, jobs, and health care. It’s a beautiful thing when people come together.”
Robinson implored NAACP members to stay the course, fight back against hate groups, oppose voting suppression laws, and notice the growing racial segregation that comes along with vast income inequality among public school districts.
He also said more diversity should be demanded in the hiring and appointment of federal prosecutors, who are 95 percent white, and the spotlight must continue to be pointed toward the killing of unarmed African-Americans by police.
“Beyond the courts, the NAACP must continue to use its network of local chapters to lobby against voter suppression at all levels of government,” he said. “If you come to Washington, I’ll be happy to join you.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.