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Buffalo’s NAACP chapter marks 100 years of gains

There are past gains to be celebrated and new challenges to conquer as the Buffalo Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People begins its second century of existence.

A 100th anniversary dinner was held Sunday in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center to commemorate the founding of the local chapter of the civil rights organization in 1915, six years after the founding of the national organization. And while branch president Frank B. Mesiah acknowledged gains by the organization in knocking down the walls of racial segregation and its attendant inequities, he also affirmed that racism and social injustice are not dead.

“We try to be a relevant as we can,” Mesiah said of the organization in a telephone interview before the start of Sunday night’s dinner.

“Discrimination and segregation is not the same as it was 20 years ago, and we say thanks to the NAACP for that. But the discrimination and segregation now is a little more subtle than it has been in the past,” Mesiah said.

Though some think the NAACP grew out of the Niagara Movement – started in Buffalo – Mesiah said they were more like parallel movements that developed at a time when discrimination, segregation and racial injustice were fairly rampant across the country.

“The NAACP was founded in 1909 as a result of some riots that were taking place in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. This group of black and white, Christian and Jewish people came together and created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People several years later” after the Niagara Movement, he explained.

The Buffalo branch helped document and challenge local instances of racial discrimination in housing and public accommodations, but really came into its own in the 1970s when it joined allies in the mission to desegregate Buffalo Public Schools.

“We were part of the group that took the Buffalo Board of Education to court in which they were found guilty of intentionally segregating schools and failing to hire minority teachers,” Mesiah recalled.

The catalyst, more than 20 years earlier, was the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. (Topeka, Kan.) Board of Education that struck down “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks and whites.

“That also was an NAACP case,” Mesiah said. “Locally, we were also friends of the court in the Buffalo Police and Fire Departments case, in which they were found guilty of failing to hire women and minorities.”

If the organization seems less robust than it was in its heyday, it’s partly a function of its past achievements and partly the changing nature the type of social injustice cases that the organization has historically taken on.

“Our role has changed, but the effect of us is still the same. We’re still doing things. Because of the NAACP, a lot of those issues have been resolved in the courts,” Mesiah said.

“We don’t get into individual cases. We don’t have the resources. We’re all volunteers. What we do would be supportive of things that happen on the national level,” he added.

With the recent spate of alleged police brutality cases, many involving young, unarmed African American men who died in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island, Cleveland and Baltimore, he said the local NAACP branch has turned its attentions to police relations with local minority communities.

“The need for stronger and better training of police in cooperation with the police and how that is going to take place” is among the objectives. “I attended a police training in Cheektowaga a few weeks ago. It was very insightful,” Mesiah said.

Carmen Berkley, director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights for the AFL-CIO, who was the keynote speaker for Saturday’s dinner, said there is still a role for social justice organizations like the NAACP to play in addressing lingering racism and discrimination. However, it will require actively coalescing people around those goals.

“We have to be talking about things that people care about,” Berkley said, prior to her speech.

“Right now, people care about criminal justice reform, public education and sending their kids to college without being bankrupt for the rest of their lives. It’s beautiful to have this dinner and commemorate 100 years of the Buffalo NAACP, but we must also be talking about the issues that bring young people and our elders together to figure out how they will organize, because that’s what it’s about. It’s not about just talking, it’s not about town halls. It’s about organizing for social change, and that’s what the NAACP can do,” she added.

Mesiah, who succeeded longtime chapter president Daniel R. Acker, after his death in 1997, said he was confident there would be a continued role for the Buffalo branch NAACP to play far into its next century of existence.

“There will always be a need for the NAACP or some entity that monitors that kind of activity to make sure that certain groups of people don’t trample over the rights of other people,” Mesiah said.