NAACP leaders from all over Georgia, who met Friday and Saturday in Statesboro, made education and health care their focus.
The NAACP Georgia State Conference brought its 2014 First Quarter Meeting and Civil Rights Institute to Statesboro, the adopted hometown of Dr. Francys Johnson, to signal the start of his two-year term as state conference president. NAACP officials said they expected about 300 leaders from NAACP units all over Georgia.
But the number of people at Friday night’s convening session in the Averitt Center for the Arts’ Emma Kelly Theater appeared to exceed that. As keynote speaker, Dr. Nelson B. Rivers III, a South Carolina NAACP leader and minister, assailed last fall’s federal government shutdown as evil.
“Back in October they shut down the government, an act of clear and unspeakable evil,” Rivers said. “That was just evil: knowing 800,000 people would not get paid — evil, knowing that America’s own security would be jeopardized; evil, knowing that services that people depend on would not be given — evil. And they did it because they’re upset that the black man got elected twice!”
The shutdown resulted from Republican opposition to extending government funding unless the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” was defunded or delayed.
Rivers also used the word “evil” for the refusal of governments in Georgia, South Carolina and other states to accept federal funding for an expansion of Medicaid.
Among other Bible verses, he quoted Isaiah 10:1-2: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed.”
In South Carolina 250,000 people and in Georgia 500,000 people would receive low-cost or no-cost health insurance if their states accepted the expansion, he said.
Rivers encouraged NAACP members to protest at the Georgia Capitol for Medicaid expansion.
“The time has come for us to shut down evil,” he repeated at several points.
Rivers, from Charleston, previously served as South Carolina NAACP State Conference executive director. He led in the campaign to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina’s capitol building.
After his formal swearing in as Georgia NAACP State Conference president, Johnson spoke briefly about education, the other focus of this weekend’s conference.
“It benefits all of America to educate and to properly prepare and to send out to the global world-ready citizens who can be productive,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t benefit anybody to have the kind of public education system that we have at this present time — broken, underfunded, piecemeal at best.”
Panel discussions and training sessions were scheduled at the Averitt Center, Statesboro City Hall and Georgia Southern University’s City Campus.
Mid-morning Saturday, while Johnson concluded the NAACP business meeting in the City Hall council chambers, panelists arrived at the Averitt Center for a discussion on “Disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline.” The idea was that official responses to discipline problems and other patterns that begin in school can lead young people to prison.
“They get caught up in this cycle, an unending cycle they’re not able to get out of, and that of course has policy implications for the communities, and even in the long run for the whole country,” said Dr. Saba Jallow, the director of the GSU Center for Africana Studies.
He and another panelist, Dr. Bill Reynolds, a GSU College of Education associate professor, were interviewed before taking their places on the panel. Reynolds described “zero tolerance” policies and the current emphasis on standardized testing as factors in creating “prison-like” schools. Resisting these trends, making curriculum more relevant to children and teaching them to be critical thinkers could begin to make a difference, he said.
“But there’s no quick-fix answer,” Reynolds added.
NAACP youth councils and college chapters, as well as county and city branches, were represented at Friday’s convening session. In addition to Bulloch County NAACP Branch President Pearl Brown and her husband, NAACP District Coordinator Carlos C. Brown, NAACP Bulloch County Youth Council President Maurice Brantley, 20, and Georgia Southern University Chapter President Kashia Knight, 24, welcomed guests at the reception.
During the session, local officials including Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore, Bulloch County Board of Commissioners Chairman Garrett Nevil, Vice Chairman Anthony Simmons and state Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, greeted the crowd. Moore read a proclamation unanimously approved by City Council this week saluting the NAACP on its 105th anniversary. The county commissioners had voted a similar resolution and presented it to Johnson at their Jan. 21 meeting.
Johnson, who grew up in Sylvania but graduated from Georgia Southern before going to the University of Georgia for his law degree, pastors Magnolia Missionary Baptist Church in Statesboro and Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Pembroke. He recently moved his law practice into a building across the street from Statesboro City Hall. He also chairs the board of the Averitt Center for the Arts.
Johnson actually became Georgia NAACP president after his election at the state convention in Columbus on Oct. 5. But the organization included an induction ceremony for Johnson and nine other conference officers in Friday night’s session. Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham came to Statesboro to administer the oath.
Noting his own past as a participant in and beneficiary of the civil rights movement, Benham thanked the NAACP for what it has meant to him, and also for bringing the courts important cases.
“We cannot do justice unless you bring just causes to us,” he said.
Johnson succeeds Edward O. DuBose as Georgia NAACP president. DuBose, from Columbus, served eight years in the office. He also took part in this weekend’s meeting.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.