A quiet voice 

The letter was almost an insult, a slap in the face to Kevin Seraaj. "I was stunned," says the president of the Central Florida Advocate newspaper. "Maybe even appalled."

The letter told Seraaj he was being booted from an Orange County NAACP task force investigating Orlando banks and federal lending guidelines to black communities.

The branch's leadership gave two reasons for Seraaj's removal. He had missed a task force meeting without notifying its chairman -- a claim Seraaj disputes.

More important, the letter said his "appointment" to the task force was being withdrawn because a column in the Advocate, one of three black-owned newspapers locally, had criticized the local NAACP -- a subtle attempt, Seraaj says, to censor his newspaper.

At an Aug. 7 meeting of the organization, Seraaj tried to clarify why he'd been removed. He hadn't even written the column that the task force chairman, Gerald Bell, was angry about. "There needs to be a change in leadership," Seraaj murmured in frustration.

Bell, the branch's second vice president, had made "erroneous," "dangerous" and "defamatory" allegations and should step down as task force chairman for failing to hold monthly meetings.

Ironies and hypocrisies were evident in both their removals, the two said. They were eager to work on the task force at a time when finding volunteers for any NAACP committee is difficult.

And when had it become the NAACP's practice to stifle discussions in political forums? "Do you think a civil-rights association ought to be limiting free speech and the First Amendment?" van Gelder asked. (A week later, Aug. 14, he and Seraaj won a reprieve when the membership voted 11-2 to have the executive committee reconsider their removals.)

To Seraaj, the squabble points to a larger concern many African Americans have with the local chapter of the venerable, 91-year-old association, the nation's oldest and largest civil-rights organization. The branch, they say, has gone soft. It is ineffective and unwilling to take on obvious incidents of racism in the community. Observers point out that the branch hasn't filed any lawsuits in the last two decades. It hasn't called for boycotts. It hasn't held press conferences. Except for joining the One Florida protest in Tallahassee last spring, it hasn't demonstrated against anyone.

The branch, which has about 500 members, even failed to capitalize on issues highlighted by the national organization, such as the recent boycott of the Adam's Mark Hotel chain. The protest began regionally, in Daytona Beach, and Adam's Mark has a hotel in Orlando. A lawsuit supported by the NAACP was filed at the Orlando federal courthouse. Yet the local branch was silent.

The branch didn't support light rail, even though the commuter system arguably would have benefited many in the black community. And the branch hasn't focused enough on Jones High School, one of Florida's oldest black schools, which many African Americans are concerned is quietly losing students.

Maybe the most damning indictments of the local branch come from longtime NAACP members. Charlie Jean Salter is a community activist, a former professor at Valencia Community College and a golden heritage member of the NAACP. Salter remembers the days when people risked their jobs, if not their lives, just for being in the NAACP. She was one of the few people to see Martin Luther King Jr. give his only Orlando speech, in 1962. (King's last message to his audience, according to Salter, was, "Orlando is not ready for civil rights. I will not be back." )

The local branch, she says, "needs to be investigated by the national association. They are not accessible to the area who needs their help. It's just terrible, really. Most of the officers in the Orange County branch live outside the community. I don't know what their main interest is. I can't see anything too positive they've been doing. They are ignoring the issues they should be involved in. ... The entire community knows it's an ineffective branch."

Churches, long the backbone of the NAACP, have shied away from supporting the Orange County branch. "My church could be a large repository for membership to their organization," says Rev. Randolph Bracy Jr., of the New Covenant Baptist Church, which has one of Orlando's larger black congregations. Bracy says he prefers a "muted" tone to his criticism; he has two children who are NAACP members and has supported the organization for more than 40 years. Even so, he says the local branch "seems to have taken a lazy, laid-back kind of posture.

"It seems like they would develop forums to study issues that impact the area," Bracy says. "I don't see that issues are being studied and a strategy developed."

Officials at the state level seem reluctant to discuss the Orange County branch. "There's always more that can be done," says Willie Williams, a state officer living in Orlando, "and that's all I'm going to say about that."

Bell and branch president Thomas Alston know they have a "wishy-washy" reputation. That's one reason, Bell says, that he decided to remove van Gelder and Seraaj from the task force. He was taking a stand on two people who he says wouldn't function well on a committee handling sensitive information. "These guys are suspicious," he says. "They think everyone has a second agenda."

Bell says that branches of the NAACP often are hamstrung by guidelines from the national office and a dependency on volunteers. "`People` think anything that happens in the black community, we should take up and run with," he says. But a few years ago, at the direction of the national organization, the focus of the NAACP shifted to employment and education.

Bell says it's important that the branch not get ahead of itself and end up looking silly. Even sit-ins and protests in the days of social upheaval were planned down to the smallest detail. According to Bell, the NAACP screened and trained demonstrators it sent into drug stores and put on picket lines. "We're trying to run a serious organization," Bell says. "We're trying to maintain the integrity in our own organization."

Alston, a former electrical engineer who now runs a nonprofit community-outreach organization, doesn't seem bothered by the criticism. "We're only as strong as our volunteers," he says.

He realizes that members of his branch wish they could take a public stand on issues like the shooting of Andrea Hall, a hostage whom a police sharpshooter accidentally killed during a standoff last month. But he argues that the NAACP will benefit from prudently examining issues rather than reacting in knee-jerk fashion. "I'd rather act correctly than quickly," he says. "Quickly doesn't win anything. But correctness does."

Alston points out that the branch has won a number of victories, only some of which were publicized. Just this week the branch worked with Orange County Commissioner Bob Freeman to obtain funds to continue school-bus service for 100 children in Tildenville. Alston says they also worked with County Chairman Mel Martinez on a plan to diversify the county fire department.

The branch's reputation, Alston argues, remains intact. "When all else fails, who can you call but the NAACP?"

The state office won't intervene in the matters of a struggling branch unless members ask for it. State NAACP president Adora Obi Nweze says there's a better way to straighten out a branch: elections. The three Orange County officers, as well as the other six members of the executive committee, are up for re-election this fall.

"Anyone who is a member or who has a concern should take this opportunity to bring their organization up to par," says Nweze, a Dade County Public School administrator who became state president in January. "The executive committee has a right and a responsibility to change."

Meanwhile, the state organization marches on. It recently filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 100 minority prison guards against the Florida Department of Corrections, alleging discriminatory hiring and promoting practices. Nweze adds that the Florida NAACP will soon file suit against Pensacola law-enforcement agencies for a number of shootings in that city.

As for elections in the Orange County branch, van Gelder says he won't run for office because he's ineligible, having joined the organization only last April. Seraaj says he's considering running, but he's concerned his position at the Advocate will hinder his involvement. City Commissioner Ernest Page, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1996, says he is too busy to run again. Alston says he's unsure whether he'll run again.

Whoever takes the helm will have to quell some bickering. The Aug. 14 meeting was marred by procedural disputes. "We've been blundering through for I don't know how long," said James Scott, another former branch president. Several members took exception to Scott's statement. But Sylvia Young defended him, saying, "People come and leave `the branch` because you don't do anything."

Maybe to his credit, maybe because there was nothing left to say, Alston responded, "Let's move on."


More by William Dean Hinton


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