By DOUGLAS MANN
MINNEAPOLIS-More than a month after a bitter Jan. 9 election for president of the local NAACP branch, the NAACP National Executive Board finally declared an official winner.
The board announced that Rick Campbell, a deputy chief and fire marshal in the Minneapolis Fire Department, had ousted incumbent president Leola Seals by a 218 to 202 vote.
A prominent columnist for the Star Tribune, Doug Grow, reflected the general line of the news media, the Democratic Party, and the city power structure in an article praising the victory of Campbell over Seals. Grow attributed the contentious nature of the election to “an exercise in self-defeating, hair-splitting, internal politics.”
But nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike most recent elections in this country, which are little more than power struggles completely divorced from any questions of policy, this election for Minneapolis NAACP president involved real differences in policy, program, and practice.
Seals, who was originally elected as president in 1996, campaigned for re-election defending the tactics of the 1960s civil rights movement-picket lines, protest marches and rallies-that the branch had employed under her leadership.
These, she said, were legitimate tactics for improving conditions for minorities and correctly characterized her challengers as “people who owe their allegiance to the downtown power structure.”
Richard Jefferson, a former state legislator, who was the original candidate picked to oust Seals, expressed the differences clearly.
Jefferson attacked Seals for taking part in protests against the school board and city government, saying that “these are the tactics of the ’60s, and I don’t think they worked that well in the ’60s, and I don’t think they will work that well in the ’90s.”
Jefferson, of course, has conveniently forgotten that his entire career and election as state legislator was only possible because of the tactics of the civil rights movement of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King.
Under the leadership of Leola Seals, the NAACP organized protests against the “Community School Plan.”
In accord with the plan, students in neighborhoods that are predominately non-white and have very high concentrations of poverty, are forced to attend schools with the least experienced teachers and fewer and more outdated text books than in schools for the district’s more affluent children.
The Community School Plan was developed with the support of the Democratic Party and Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton as a device for undermining and reversing modest progress made under a court-ordered desegregation plan in the 1970s and ’80s. In reality, the Community School is a plan to resegregate the inner-city schools.
Protests against the Community School Plan put Seals and the Minneapolis Branch of the NAACP at odds with Mayor Sayles-Belton, who has been the biggest booster of the plan.
Sayles-Belton is the first African American and first woman to serve as mayor of Minneapolis. As a former parole officer, she has close ties to the law-enforcement institutions in the city.
Democrats also hold 11 of 12 seats on the city council, including 10 self-described “liberal” Democrats and six out of the seven seats on the school board. The city council aggressively supports and unanimously endorsed the Community School Plan.
The move to abandon desegregation as a goal, and to develop tactics to reverse previous court-ordered desegregation plans, is not limited to Minneapolis but is occurring in cities across the nation.
Wherever possible, Black politicians who are willing to put political careers ahead of any allegiance to Black and poor communities are recruited to play leading roles in this.
Mayor Sayles-Belton also supports a law-enforcement policy called CODEFOR. This is a direct copy of the “zero tolerance” policing strategy for poor and Black neighborhoods initiated by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York City. Under this policy, Black males especially are targeted for random searches, harassment, interrogation, and worse.
The result, both in New York and Minneapolis, is an atmosphere of police terror and abuse in Black and poor inner-city neighborhoods. Under Seals, the Minneapolis NAACP branch has demanded an end to the CODEFOR program, calling it racially discriminatory.
The election of NAACP branch officers not only pitted Leola Seals against a conservative wing of the branch, as most press accounts have noted, but also against the mayor, the Democratic Party, and the institutions it controls in Minneapolis.
Despite this, the anti-Seals forces had considerable difficulty in finding a candidate to run against the popular Leola Seals.
The election for branch officers was originally scheduled for Nov. 15, 1998, and former state legislator Richard Jefferson was selected by the anti-Seals forces to run against Seals. However, Jefferson was found to be ineligible to run for any branch office because he failed to be current on his dues.
Neither Campbell nor Jefferson had been active members before running for branch president. And unlike candidates on the Seals slate, many of the candidates that ran on the Campbell slate have not been active members of the branch for some time, if ever.
The fight over Jefferson’s eligibility provided the pretext for the national office of the NAACP to take over the running of the election. The anti-Seals forces had much to gain from this move.
The replacement of Ben Chavis with former Congressman Kweisi Mfume as national president of the NAACP a few years ago signaled a turn away from the kind of militant leadership, and more distant relationship from the Democratic Party, that Chavis represented.
Carl Brede, a representative of the national office of the NAACP, took charge of the electoral process in the Minneapolis branch and scheduled a nominating meeting in December, which he chaired.
Although the branch membership had elected supporters of Leola Seals to the five-person election supervisory committee at the December nominating meeting, Carl Brede overturned the membership’s decision by appointing six Campbell supporters to the committee and appointing Matthew Little, a principal leader of the anti-Seals forces, as the committee chairperson.
By gaining control of the electoral supervisory committee, the Little-Campbell group gained control of the list of eligible voters.
Many supporters of Leola Seals were subsequently dropped from the list of eligible voters or did not get official notice of the elections. And those who were informed about the election by other means and went to the polling place had to cast a challenged ballot.
Twenty-two ballots were challenged. Only four challenged ballots were eventually counted.
A powerful coalition of inactive conservative branch members, the Democratic Party, the mayor, and the national office of the NAACP had successfully rigged the election.
The fight is not yet over. Outraged Seals supporters are mounting a challenge to the election report that declared Campbell president-elect. But to win this challenge they will have to go beyond demonstrating that the by-laws and constitution of the NAACP were violated.
It will take a large, visible mobilization of the Black community and its allies-using the tactics of the ’60’s-to force the powerful anti-Seals forces to retreat from their despicable action.