Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The NAACP’s 114th National Convention in Boston on July 29. (Photo: U.S. Department of Education via Flickr)

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was in town July 26-Aug. 1. More than 7,000 people attended the 114th National Convention, including hundreds of local and national vendors, allowing Boston to reintroduce itself – and Boston showed up and showed out. The theme “Thriving Together” created an environment in which to celebrate and acknowledge Black Boston’s collective entrepreneurial and political power. 

The convention was last here in 1982, when the news of the day was about an African American home firebombed because three Black families had moved into an all-white Dorchester enclave. That event, coupled with lingering animus from the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s, left a pox on Beantown, keeping not only the convention away since but also African American tourists; the city had earned a reputation as one of the most racist cities in the country. Today Boston presents itself as ready to change – not to erase its past, but rather as a city now able to provide opportunities for people of color and uphold their civil and human rights without discrimination.

The organization’s acceptance of its LGBTQ+ members was also no longer an ongoing controversy this time. Once as homophobic as the Black church, the organization did a 180-degree turn in July 2018 when it invited me and other LGBTQ+ activists from across the country to its 109th Annual Convention at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio.

At a convention town hall, Leon W. Russell, chair of the national board of directors, apologized on behalf of the organization. “You cannot profess to be a civil rights fighter and then insert exceptions,” Russell said. “It’s none of your business who I love. You just have to let me have the right to do that.”

Still today, that NAACP’s town hall meeting is one of its most-watched programs on C-Span.

For many years there was a debate between civil rights vs. gay rights. In 2004, during a June 12 Capitol Hill ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-miscegenation laws – sponsored by several straight and queer civil rights organizations across the country – The NAACP Legal Defense Fund released a historical statement that best explains why the struggle for same-sex marriage was a civil rights struggle: “It is undeniable that the experience of African Americans differs in many important ways from that of gay men and lesbians; among other things, the legacy of slavery and segregation is profound. But differences in historical experiences should not preclude the application of constitutional provisions to gay men and lesbians who are denied the right to marry the person of their choice.” (The NAACP-LDF was founded in 1940 as part of the larger organization but now operates as a separate entity.)

Today, the organization has an LGBTQIA Committee chair, Demar Roberts of Tennessee, who works to protect and advance the rights of the community. And at the convention’s LGBTQIA reception, former Cambridge mayor and now councillor E. Denise Simmons, the first openly lesbian African American mayor in the United States, was awarded the first NAACP social justice award to an LGBTQ+ person. 

Holding the national convention in Boston was important. As the first chartered branch of the NAACP, Boston helped lay the foundation for the vitality and vibrancy of Black social justice activism. Boston’s reputation as racist has held us all back, all Bostonians – Black and white – and the entire state. And the NAACP’s once homophobic stance on LGBTQ+ civil rights held the Black community back and the organization from thriving together. 

The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.