The election of an African-American president may have led some to believe that a post-racial society had arrived, but the recent Charlottesville incident proved otherwise, the national chairman of the NAACP said Saturday.
"I think what Charlottesville did was help us to focus. I think what it showed us was that some things that people thought were past were not really past," Leon W. Russell said in an interview before his keynote address at the organization's 81st annual New York State conference in Niagara Falls.
He was referring to the white supremacist marchers in the Virginia city who battled with opponents at a Unite the Right" rally Aug. 12, when one of the marchers drove his vehicle into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring 19 other people.
"Now a door has been opened that allows people to express sentiments and attitudes that were not acceptable for the last 50 years," Russell said. "It's amazing that we have given up civility in the name of not being politically correct."
Russell said one of the problems civil rights groups face in motivating their constituents is that problems can't be solved quickly.
"We have got to get away from the concept of instant gratification, that all of the problems are going to be solved by a march," Russell said. "It's important for me to have folks understand that the way we solve problems is to organize in order to be effective advocates, which is ultimately what we are: a civil rights-social justice advocacy organization."
Russell said that President Barack Obama "gave us an opportunity," but results in civil rights and other social areas could not be automatic.
"For those of us who study government, for those of us who understand the concept, we know that it takes time to make change," Russell said. "Unfortunately, the interruption is what has come along now."
President Trump has created a political storm, said Russell, who directed the human rights office in Pinellas County, Fla., for 35 years.
"In this instance, you use the storm to motivate people," Russell said. "I think there is a spirit of activism in the country that the NAACP needs to tap into."
Many black citizens fall into the category of "infrequent voters" who need to be motivated by a candidate or issue to come to the polls, he said.
If black voters are motivated, they could make a big difference in the outcome of next year's congressional elections as well as the 2020 presidential race, Russell said.
"These are opportunities for us," Russell said. "When African-American voters are educated, they will make the right choices."
Russell said the NAACP's major goals include maintaining and expanding access to voting rights. Russell called for a law making it mandatory for all adults to vote, and for moving elections to weekends.
"You can't stand on the street and holler and expect change," Russell said. "It takes work. It takes organization."
Russell, 67, became chairman in February after 27 years on the NAACP national board, including the past seven years as vice chairman.
The NAACP grew out of the Niagara Movement, founded in 1905 by W.E.B. DuBois. The state conference at the Conference and Events Center in Niagara Falls began Thursday.