After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr. found his grandmother alone and crying at the dining room table inside her New Jersey home.
Then a 16-year-old junior at Montclair High School, he had never seen his grandmother cry before. “She was the strongest woman I ever met,” recalled Soaries, New Jersey’s former Secretary of State.
His grandmother didn’t believe in “stirring up a fuss” during the Civil Rights movement and had not taken to the streets to protest. But King’s death cut deep.
“It was at that moment that I said, ‘I better get to know more about Martin Luther King, Jr.’ because I wanted my life to be as impactful on somebody as his life was on my grandmother’s,” said Soaries, 70. “Every day since April 4, 1968, everything I’ve ever done, has been in pursuit of that commitment.”
Soaries will continue the activism he started years ago when the 113th NAACP National Convention comes to Atlantic City this week. While he’s attended dozens of NAACP conventions over the years, this will be the first national event where he will speak — leading a prayer at a breakfast event during the heart of the convention next Sunday.
According to local and national organizers, the week-long convention is coming to New Jersey at a hopeful and turbulent time for both the country and Black activists. Tensions in the nation have been amplified by political division, more than two years of the global COVID-19 pandemic, a barrage of mass shootings across the country, police shootings and the recent overturning of Roe V. Wade.
It’s also been over a decade since Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President and two years since Vice President Kamala Harris made history by becoming the first woman and Black and Asian American to hold that office. When Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the 116th Supreme Court justice last month, she also made history as the first Black woman to serve on the high court.
But organizers said racial inequality and injustice — which touches crime, health, climate change, politics and other parts of American life — continue to linger.
It will all come together from Thursday to July 20 as NAACP leaders meet in person over seven days in Atlantic City to celebrate their past and plan for the historic organization’s future.
“I see America at a very important crossroads,” said Marcus Sibley, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference environmental and climate justice chair, who helped organize a panel at the convention.
“We’re at a point where we’ve had more conversations about the historic ills in Black and Brown communities than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” he added. “I’m 40 years old. I haven’t heard the number of conversations we’ve had now. Step two is what are we going to do about it.”
President Joe Biden and Vice President Harris have been invited to speak at the convention. Gov. Phil Murphy and other political leaders also are scheduled to address the attendees.
The convention will be the fourth time the NAACP’s national gathering will be held in New Jersey and the first time since 2019 that it will be held in person after virtual gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Trovon Williams, the national NAACP spokesman.
The national convention was previously held in Atlantic City in 1955 and 1968. Before that, Williams said, the Garden State hosted the event in Newark in 1922.
In 1922, Warren G. Harding was President and the country was decades from de-segregating public schools. The NAACP had just published “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918″ to provide some scope of the gruesome history of lynching.
When the convention last took place in New Jersey in June 1968, the nation was again in the middle of a historic moment. Just months earlier, the U.S. — still in the Vietnam War — had passed the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited the discrimination surrounding the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, and sex.
Soaries, an influential pastor with a long history in New Jersey, says he’s seen the nation change from a bevy of perspectives. He’s been the leader of one of Central Jersey’s largest churches, an activist who saw King as a teen and later worked alongside Rev. Jesse Jackson and the former Secretary of State of New Jersey under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
“I think generally racial attitudes have improved. It’s no longer unusual to see interracial couples … and all the explicit signs of segregation are gone. We have had tremendous progress,” said Soaries.
But the NAACP convention still has plenty of major issues to discuss, he said.
“I think the biggest failure has been the bottom third of Black America economically. You’ve got people who are poor today, who are the great-grandchildren of people who were poor in 1960. And there’s a group of people for whom all of this racial progress and economic uplift just seems to evade,” he said.
During the introductory press conference in advance of the convention, NAACP leaders pointed to voting and reproductive rights, student debt, and police reform as some of the most pressing issues facing Black Americans today.
Tackling critical issues
More than 90 events are scheduled for the NAACP National Convention — which has been four years in the making — including panels, competitions, celebrations, live music and press conferences. Organizers said attendees must be fully vaccinated and wear face masks if they’re not eating or drinking at the event.
Attendees will address various issues, including race and justice, education innovation, environmental and climate justice, an inclusive economy, health and well-being, the next generation of leaders, advocacy, and litigation. The NAACP also has a list of action items laid out online and policy recommendations for the Biden administration.
“We will definitely be talking about efforts that need to be enacted in order to close the racial wealth gap within our community,” said Williams, the NAACP spokesman. “We know that the African American community is disproportionately impacted by debt on a multitude of different levels.”
Willams said when the “rights of many Americans have been scaled back,” Black communities, other people of color and low-income families have suffered the most. That extends to reproductive and voting rights, he added.
But voter suppression and its negative impact on communities of color continue. New York-based non-profit Brennan Center for Justice outlined in a 2021 report discriminatory voting practices installed during the 2020 election, including new restrictive legislation, closed polling places, voter intimidation and efforts to overturn elections through the courts.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to end the constitutional right to an abortion will also likely disproportionately affect women of color, activists said.
Black women in the U.S. were nearly four times more likely to have abortions than white women and Hispanic women were twice as likely, according to CDC data published in 2019.
“How much have things changed since the 1960s? Not by much, unfortunately,” said Jason Williams, an assistant professor of justice studies at Montclair State University. “We have always had a way of turning back the hands of time.”
For Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, in the state’s largest city, problems disproportionately faced by Black and Hispanic residents became most stark during the COVID-19 pandemic and access to vaccines.
“People who didn’t take the vaccine were reluctant and hesitant to, but the problem wasn’t just hesitancy,” he said. “It was access to health care. We had to give people vaccines at bus stops, at shopping centers, supermarkets, anywhere we could go. Why? There’s no primary care physicians, there’s few clinics and not enough access.”
“This is not just COVID, but maternal care also,” Baraka continued. “This is why infant mortality rate in the state is extremely high and the gap between Black and Brown mothers and white mothers is excessively high compared to the rest of the country.”
Who will take the mantle?
As longtime NAACP members continue to grapple with racial and social justice issues they’ve been trying to solve for decades, the convention is also trying to attract a new generation of leaders to address national and local issues in their own communities.
More than 250 youth from Atlantic City will participate in the NAACP convention as it comes to their city, said Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small.
For Small, the convention will provide an opportunity to “show the world what the great city of Atlantic City can accomplish when everyone works together,” he said.
“Nationwide, we have to continue to ensure that African Americans are treated equally to others. We have specific incidents with active shooters, we still have incidents with police — and while we’ve made some progress, we still have a long way to go,” Small said.
Ryan P. Haygood, a civil rights lawyer and president of the non-profit New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said conventions provide opportunities for advancing conversations on critical problems. For New Jersey, he said, some key issues are same-day voter registration, closing youth prisons, acquiring reparations and ending school segregation.
“I would love to see a panel at which elected officials — by this, I mean leadership — articulate their commitment to move on legislation,” Haygood said. “Every year, you’ll hear people say, ‘Here’s what we need.’ What’s needed is a commitment from the elected officials in the leadership positions to make that real.”
When Yolanda Melville thinks about advancing solutions for the issues that have plagued Black communities for centuries, she also thinks of young people. It was the impetus for NextGen, the NAACP’s leadership and advocacy training program for young adults.
Melville, vice president of the Atlantic City NAACP, was part of the first NextGen graduating class in 2018.
In the past, many young people were missing from NAACP conventions, more interested in joining newer groups focused on issues important to them.
“‘NextGen’ is what I call the last generation of (the) Civil Rights (Movement). Not because Civil Rights was not important, but you’d find that Millennials and now Gen-Z have been more focused on student loan debt, finding a job, buying a house, or another priority. You would find that at national conventions the demographics of those 21 to 45 were missing,” said Melville.
NextGen, which will have trainings and a graduation ceremony at the national convention, will be important to draw more young participants. And part of the work to continue growing is “co-existing” with other movements that have sprung up in recent years, including Black Lives Matter — the movement founded in 2013 in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death.
“Underlying the NAACP is the notion that ‘Black lives matter.’ But the NAACP also fights for the overall civil rights of all Americans,” said Melville.
The Black Lives Matter movement helped bolster the relevancy of other social justice groups, including the NAACP, especially in the aftermath of the 2020 death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
For the NAACP to achieve its goals, young people will need to continue to step up and join the organization, said Wisdom Cole, the national director of the organization’s youth and college division.
“(The youth) are working to really identify what is happening in this moment and demanding solutions … and putting those solutions on the doors of Congress, as well as President Biden, to really address,” Cole said.
The public can attend the convention as non-members, organizers said. Registration is still open on the NAACP convention website. Non-member rates to attend the event in person range from $40 to $200, with additional options to participate virtually.
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