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The North Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP held its 74th annual convention in Raleigh. As usual, the convention attended to its business matters which must be address and voted upon annually. The event also had a litany of presenters and excellent speakers who connected all the dots across a broad spectrum of civil rights history.
The participants were marked by excitement, commitment, unity and hope. The crowd was cheerful, receptive, anticipatory and reflective. During these superlatives and accolades, the convention participants were characterized by a demographic cross-section of the people of North Carolina. There were African-Americans, Whites, Latinos, Native Americans, Christians, Jews, rabbis, imams; and yet the gathering was chilled by two opposite feelings or moods — joy and sadness.
The jubilation that permeated the convention was consistently drawn from an extensive line of hard-fought triumphs that most attendees had been a part and in many instances, had sacrificed something of value to yield the victory. They were looking back to a time even before the birth of grandparents. They went back to a time of Jim Crow and legal restrictions that were so inconceivable that when told to present-day millennials, they were aghast in disbelief and disgust.
These backward reviews yield the joy, the cheers and the admiration for that great strength of endurance that characterize a power not inherent in many civilian groups. Each review of African-American tribulations and the victory over injustice, evil and unconstitutional violations embellishes the jubilation, extends the endurance and expands the power and will of the people to go forward.
All the momentum that is not gleaned from looking back is gained from pressing forward. The fight against injustice is steeped in the biblical texts that come through the ages of the prophets attached to a divine providence that cannot be separated. When that is fused with demonstrated successful spiritual leadership and the faith of the suffering people, believing that God is the wind at their backs, victory becomes the solution.
So, there it was at the Raleigh Civic Center this past weekend. There was no pageantry, no fanfare and no political speeches. There was just a big pushback against evil, injustice and wrongdoing.
On this past Friday morning, Bishop William Barber stood before a segment of his fighters of injustice for the last time in his official capacity as president of the North Carolina NAACP. Rev. Barber gives the State of the State Address each year and this year was no different, but the presentation had a sad, chilling effect on the members.
After a few introductory remarks, Bishop Barber took that walk down memory lane. He used an introductory statement for each event of “I didn’t know.” I didn’t know his faith and the faith he instilled in his followers. Faith is believing and it creates hope. For countless generations, that hope is all that African-Americans had. If today has brought any changes in that faith and hope, then it is greater and more vibrant than ever.
Bishop Barber covered numerous triumphs in his address but hit home when he stated, “I didn’t know” that John McNeil of Wilson, North Carolina, would be convicted of murder in the state of Georgia, a crime he did not commit, sentenced to life imprisonment, served more than six years, was released with the help of Bishop Barber and others one week after the death of his wife.
Again, Barber said, “I didn’t know” that James Johnson, a teenager from Wilson, would be accused of murder after he turned the real murderer in and the police arrested him for the same crime.
James Johnson served 3 ½ years in jail without bond for a crime he did not commit. With the help of Bishop Barber, urging the judicial system to practice innocent until proven guilty, Johnson was freed.
There are very few who can insulate their psyche around the “Black Experience.” Thanks to Bishop Barber and his “family” of fighters and believers, that is changing. The movement for justice is attracting others because injustice does not only pertain to African-Americans.
Ending on a high note, with all convention-goers standing on their feet, Bishop Barber takes his seat. The soloist comes to the podium and the band cranks up one of the dirges from a way-back blues style. The soloist singing “Use me, Lord, in thou service. Draw me nearer every day,” mourn the words as a home-going service.
As the tears appeared in the wells of eyes, Bishop Barber stood to hug his wife, mother and children who too had sacrificed that he might fight for all. Bishop Barber has already crossed the bridge, not made by hands, to another dimension. It does not matter the task, the people being served or the cause of the condition, Bishop William J. Barber will be operating on faith and hope.
George Leach is a Wilson resident and former teacher with a keen interest in local, state and national politics who serves as political action chairman of the NAACP’s Wilson branch.