New NAACP Leader Looks to Build on Barber's Legacy

Oct 16, 2017

There’s been a big change atop one of North Carolina’s most prominent civil rights organization.  The influential leader of the North Carolina NAACP is stepping down to lead a national effort focused on the rights of the poor.  BPR’s Jeremy Loeb reports on the man stepping up in his place.

For the past dozen years, the North Carolina NAACP came to be defined by a man who rose to the status of an icon.

“We are being called like our foremothers and father to be the moral defibrillators of our time…. We cannot give up on the heart of our democracy.  Not now, not ever!”

Some said the Reverend William Barber the 2nd, speaking there at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, was the man to take the baton from civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.  He became a beacon to many for his strong stance against the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly, and a lightning rod of criticism for those who saw him as divisive.  Regardless, those are big shoes to fill for the man taking his place, something he knows well.

“I cannot be Bishop William J. Barber II.  I cannot be him.  I will not make an attempt to fill what people call some big shoes.  I wear a size 9 and that’s the size I will continue to wear as president of the North Carolina NAACP.”

Wearing those size 9’s is the Reverend Dr. T. Anthony Spearman.  The ‘T’ stands for Theodore, which was the name of his father. 

“I chose to call myself T. Anthony Spearman to distinguish between us and to make sure that people did not refer to me as being ‘Junior.’  I just really don’t like that.  I love my name, but I didn’t like the ‘Junior’ piece.”

And not many people will be calling him junior now.  Earlier this month, the 66-year old Spearman was elected the next President of the North Carolina NAACP.

“I think I’m feeling a lot of everything at this point.”

Spearman has been a member of the NAACP for 53 years and vice president for the past 6.  He’s also the senior pastor of St. Phillip A.M.E. Zion Church in Greensboro and President of the North Carolina Council of Churches.  He has no plans to step down from any of them.

“I think all of those work hand-in-hand.  If the strength remains in my body, I intend to continue them all.”

Spearman wants to continue the legacy laid out by Barber. That legacy includes the famed Moral Monday movement, which Barber led to protest what the NAACP saw as an extreme right-wing agenda from the new Republican majority General Assembly.  Spearman talks about the internal discussions that led up to that first rally.

“And when I chimed in I said this is a time when we cannot NOT do what needs to be done.  And so that Monday the 29th of April, we took our faith position and moved forward, and of course the rest is history.”

Spearman was the 2nd person arrested at that first Moral Monday.  More than a thousand would be arrested over the coming months as the peaceful protests grew, as did the media attention that followed.

“For me it was a very rewarding experience to bear witness to what we saw to be and perceived to be an extremist General Assembly that was beginning to make laws and put laws in place that were counterproductive to minority groups of people.”

For the NAACP, the struggle continues.  The GOP maintains a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature and Spearman says they’re the most obvious area of focus for the group

“They just seem to be moving in a way that supports the 1% over and against the 99%, and what I mean by that is the haves over and against the have-nots.”

While the group may have had less success at the ballot box, they ARE battling in a state where the party in power has been able to draw legislative maps that favor themselves.  The group’s success has mainly come in the courts.  Spearman cites the successful overturning of the election law that included voter ID and shortened early voting, among many other clampdowns on voting rules.  A federal court striking down the law famously said Republican legislators had targeted African-American with almost “surgical precision.”

“And we know that there are going to be other efforts that are going to come forward to make attempts to fight back our right to vote, but we are ready at every turn to fight back with the legal minds that we have.”

And it’s not just the state legislature.  Spearman isn’t afraid to speak out wherever he sees discrimination, like on the controversy over football players kneeling to protest the killing of unarmed black men by police.  He said the players were being unfairly demonized by the president, especially considering his response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a young counter-protester was killed.

“The president stumbled in terms of laying blame where blame ought to have been laid by saying it shows up on many sides, any sides.   No, it was the hatred that was being spewed by the KKK and all the other regimes of white supremacy.  But he has not come out and denounced them as he’s denouncing these football players.  I see it as being just such hypocrisy.”

In a statement to supporters, Spearman expressed his gratitude at his election and embraced the mantra made famous by his predecessor… Forward Together, Not One Step Back.”