NAACP Convenes In Baltimore

In Baltimore, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Sunday kicked off its 91st annual convention with a National Health Walk and a pledge to get more blacks to the polls this fall.

The civil rights organization's president, Kweisi Mfume, said the 2000 presidential election will be the most "pivotal" for his organization in a long time.

Mfume said the NAACP has completed about 70 percent of its goal of registering four million new voters for the November elections.

Both George W. Bush and Al Gore will be addressing the group's members in the next few days, providing them with an opportunity to more clearly define themselves for African-American voters.

Bush is to address the delegates on Monday; Gore will speak on Wednesday. Mfume believes the presidential election is crucial for black voters because of the impact the winner could have with his choices for the Supreme Court.

And he thinks Bush's appearance before the NAACP delegates could help the Texas governor to build support among black and traditionally Democratic voters.

Four years ago, GOP hopeful Bob Dole refused an invitation to speak to the group, saying Mfume was "trying to set me up" and that he would look for friendlier audiences that "I can relate to."

Dole later said his failure to address the NAACP was a missed opportunity and he pledged an all-out fight for "the hearts and votes" of black Americans.

Four years earlier, then President George Bush declined an invitation to speak at the convention. Mfume said George W. Bush, the Texas governor, "obviously he
doesn't think this is a setup. He will talk to this assembly. We want to hear what compassionate conservatism really is. We are interested in compassionate commitment."

He added, "I hope Vice President Gore also speaks to us in very clear terms on how his leadership would impact America."

The NAACP's national board chairman, Julian Bond, said that while the group does not endorse candidates because of its tax-exempt status, the candidates should draw plenty attention from around the country with their speeches "as they try to sell themselves to more and more people."

Mfume said that for too long, black America has been caught between the policies of Republicans who eschew minority issues and of Democrats who take the black vote for granted. "That type of folly must end," Mfume said.

Under the convention banner "Race to Vote," presidential politics promise to take center stage at this year's weeklong meeting, expected to attract more than 10,000 members at the Baltimore Convention Center.

"You have no capital in the bank of change if you don't take advantage of the franchise," Mfume said.

Mfume said many Americans are moving away from strict party identification."People vote their pocketbooks. They vote on whom they believe in. This election is still to b defined for many voters," Mfume said.

On other matters, the NAACP:

  • Will continue its opposition to public money for school vouchers and its support for federal hate crime legislation, affirmative action and the extension of health care benefits to the poorest of Americans."We need to bring a sense of advocacy to this issue," Mfume said, citing the disproportionately high rates of cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes among blacks. "Health care is a civil rights issue for us."
  • Is investigating the death of 17-year-old Raynard Johnson of Kokomo, Miss., who was found hanging from a tree in his front yard on June 15. A preliminary investigation has ruled the death a suicide. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and the youth's family question the official findings and believe he may have been lynched. "It is a tragic situation that cries out for a thorough and accurate investigation," Mfume said.
  • Could hear from supporters of the Confederate flag who plan to demonstrate Sunday in an effort to pressure the group to end its economic boycott in South Carolina. Bond said the flag is "a Confederate swastika." adding, "They really don't know the (Civil) war is over."
The boycott resulted from the state's flying of the flag atop the Statehouse dome. After 38 years, South Carolina removed the flag on July 1, and another one was raised on the Statehouse grounds, on a 30-foot pole.

The NAACP and other flag opponents say the flag is too visible. Many see the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage. Opponents see it as a defiant sign against blacks and the civil rights movement.