Still relevant? New NAACP president faces charged civil rights landscape

The Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP’s president, Janette Martin, took office about the same time as Donald Trump.

Eze Amos The Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP’s president, Janette Martin, took office about the same time as Donald Trump. Eze Amos

There were times in its century-long history that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was considered a militant organization. Today, not so much. Just last week, the national organization’s board ousted its president and called for a “systemwide refresh.”

Janette Martin took the helm of the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP in January at the same time President Donald Trump took office, and her organization, like so many others, is struggling to cope in a new era of American politics that’s energized by activist groups like Black Lives Matter.

Has the NAACP been supplanted by such groups?

“No,” says Martin. “We’ve been around for 108 years, with over 2,200 chapters. We’re very careful.”

Perhaps that’s why Martin didn’t respond to white nationalists putting the city on the national stage over the Robert E. Lee statue until four days later, when she compared them to the KKK.

“When you read about how they came in the night,” says Martin, “this group—I’m not saying they’re the Klan—but I think they wanted to intimidate.” With the torches, the only thing missing was “the white sheets,” she said at a press conference.

Martin, a teacher for 30 years, is a lifetime member of the NAACP, and admits she’s more of a “behind-the-scenes person.” She said she’d been asked several times by former president Rick Turner, who was often controversial and confrontational, to take the job and had declined—until she was thrust into the position with his resignation late last year shortly after he won a heated re-election.

Moving to Charlottesville as a young woman, she was a member of First Baptist Church, where the Reverend Benjamin Bunn founded the local chapter in 1947. “People were really into the NAACP,” she recalls. “They pulled us in.” And she’s risen through the ranks, starting with passing out programs at banquets, to serving as secretary and then vice president.

She touts the venerable organization’s conferences, education programs and structure, with its 19 standing committees to deal with issues. She’d like to have six active committees here, such as education, to get people engaged rather than waiting until a crisis to act, and she needs chairs for the health, political action and membership committees, according to the chapter’s website.

Since the election, she says the local chapter has 100 new members and attendance at meetings is up. But to get anything done, the NAACP needs commitment and “people power,” she says.

The NAACP “is still relevant,” she says—and continues to battle some of the same issues. “They fought for voting rights, and now we’re right back to it.”

Says Martin, “We’d like to be the face of civil rights in the community.”

Correction: Martin moved to Charlottesville as a young woman and did not grow up here, as originally reported.

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