NC faction of NAACP members accuses national organization of disenfranchisement

Lars Dolder

Members from one faction of the NAACP state conference hosted a press conference Wednesday to accuse the national NAACP of disenfranchising North Carolina members.

A central feature of the NAACP’s mission to advance people of color has long been shoring up election access. But the national NAACP has suppressed its own members’ voting rights during internal elections, said the Rev. Cardes Brown, a longtime NAACP member and civil rights leader.

Brown’s serious accusations are the latest voiced publicly in a heated dispute gripping the North Carolina NAACP.

One camp accuses former state NAACP leaders of financial mismanagement and more. Brown and fellow members of the independent group Justice Coalition USA accuse the national NAACP of taking unfair disciplinary action against this state’s conference and its former leader, the late Rev. Anthony Spearman.

In 2020, the national NAACP rolled out a new process by which its members were expected to vote during conference elections. The all-electronic voting system was intended to help members vote remotely at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown said.

“But it was unconstitutional,” Ana Ilarraza-Blackburn, a member of the Moore County NAACP chapter and the NAACP’s first Latino immigrant liaison, said Wednesday. “I went in to vote that morning and had difficulty voting. Then my president from the NAACP Moore branch called to say that my vote was thrown out and everyone that voted that morning’s vote was thrown out because there were so many issues with that system.”

Ilarraza-Blackburn and Brown suggested the electronic system skewed 2021 voting results and misrepresented what voters wanted. They called on the national organization to revise its process before voting scheduled for November.

“A couple of years ago, when we had the electronic election, if one of the members hadn’t talked me through it there would have been no way in this world,” said Eileen Jones, 77, a longtime NAACP member who spoke at Wednesday’s press conference. “... I don’t know how many other people need it, but I sure need an in-person vote. I need some paper to look at.”

The national NAACP issued a statement last year defending the fairness of the North Carolina conference’s 2021 election. It claimed all units across the country had adequate time to comply with the new system.

“No grievance filed warranted a re-administration of the election,” the statement said, referring to complaints about the North Carolina balloting.

Regarding the Justice Coalition, it said this: “There is no Unit of the Association that is identified or authorized to act as the “North Carolina Justice Coalition.” That group has no standing or affiliation with the NAACP.”

Brown on Wednesday said he understood the motivation behind all-electronic voting during the height of the pandemic.

“But we are not in 2020,” he said. “And all of a sudden in 2022, when many of these restrictions have been lifted, we are demanded, commanded, ordered to vote electronically.”

National representatives did not confirm to The N&O if this year’s internal elections would be conducted with electronic-only voting. Jeanette McCarthy Wallace, the NAACP’s general counsel, said she could not comment on the organization’s internal affairs.

Internal strife

Brown and other Justice Coalition members spoke Wednesday before a small crowd at the New Light Missionary Baptist Church in Greensboro where Brown has served as pastor for the last 47 years. They addressed several issues that The News & Observer reported in August regarding severe challenges facing North Carolina’s NAACP.

One is the conflict between some members of the NC NAACP and national leaders who put the state organization in a punitive “administratorship.” Allegations of financial mismanagement during Spearman’s leadership was one reason cited for the takeover.

In addition, like hundreds of state and local NAACP affiliates across the country, this state’s NAACP lost its federal tax-exempt status.

Losing its tax-exempt status can undermine an organization’s fundraising efforts and compromise its reputation, experts told The N&O.

After The N&O discovered and asked national leaders about the large number of tax-exempt lapses, the NAACP’s general counsel sent a letter to state conferences suggesting the IRS was at fault.

“It has (been) brought to our attention that several NAACP Units received letters from the Internal Revenue Service indicating that their tax-exempt status has been revoked,” Wallace, the NAACP’s general counsel, wrote. “This is an error because individual NAACP Units are not required to file Form 990s of their own.”

Under the NAACP’s structure, state and local chapters submit their annual financial reports to the national office which then compiles an “aggregate” tax filing, Brown said Wednesday. He accused national NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson of mishandling critical data essential to preserving the tax-exempt status.

“What happens is units across the country send in their information,” Brown said. “We were all directing our information to national who was supposed to file for us, but they messed up.”

More than 800 affiliate organizations had their tax-exempt statuses revoked by the IRS. State conferences in the same boat included California, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas.