The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peopled [NAACP] celebrated its 100th anniversary this month. This week, The Express sat down with Sag Harbor resident Bill Pickens, whose grandfather Professor William Pickens helped establish the NAACP as a far-reaching national organization for racial equality in the United States. In 1941, Bill Pickens joined the organization, becoming a life member at five-years-old. Pickens helps carry on the work of his grandfather and served on the board of the NAACP for seven years.
For our readers who aren’t familiar with the NAACP [The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], what is the mission of the organization?
The NAACP’s mission is to take the American political and economic landscape and make it available to all, especially for African Americans who are left bereft in this American economic miracle. While the NAACP is for colored people, there are lots of people of color in this world. It has a broader context then just the Americans. W.E.B. DuBois [a co-founder of the NAACP] was a Pan-Africanist. He saw early on that the world was much larger in its coloration than just the 48 U.S. states [at the time the NAACP was founded in 1909]. He looked beyond America to find a definition of the word colored people.
The NAACP is a membership organization. It was founded as a membership organization to attract people, bring them together to organize. My grandfather [Professor William Pickens, former NAACP Director of Branches and Field Secretary] said the NAACP isn’t like mosquitoes, but like hornets. When hornets attack, they attack you in mass. He felt we weren’t going to get anywhere if we were disorganized. He said that we had to be get organized and have a mission. So far, I think it has worked, but perhaps not as well as the founders had hoped.
The founding members were made up of white philanthropists, we had Jewish membership, and they came together with DuBois to look at this with a forward looking perspective. There were tensions in the founding [of the NAACP], they still had to have the whites and blacks agree on what the mission of the organization was. Even in its founding, the had to go forward in a united fashion.
What has been the NAACP’s impact on the country?
The NAACP was instrumental in changing how America works as a democracy. The NAACP was made up of white and black intellectuals and agitators, who asked themselves ‘how are we going to make America better and not bitter?’ The NAACP helped change the laws. The laws that were against black people were changed in the supreme court and appellate courts, but they affected Americans around the country. The NAACP helped give white women the opportunity to vote and helped provide equal opportunity for the Chinese and Mexican [American communities].
There used to be a terrible voting prohibition, what was called a poll tax. Poor black Americans were asked to pay a fee to vote in the South and if you didn’t have the money you couldn’t vote. All of these barriers were put and the courts upheld them. The NAACP fought for this and won.
Then you had lynching. My grandfather testified before Congress in 1920 trying to get anti-lynching laws passed, but [political officials] from Mississippi opposed them because they were pro-lynching, and you knew this by their actions. The NAACP fought them tooth and nail with little money, but the anti-lynching bill was passed [in 1922].
Even though the NAACP has been working for 100 years to create racial equality in America, do you feel racial incidents, that hark back to former generations, still take place?
The United States of America still isn’t united. We have incidents like what happened in Philadelphia [at the Valley Swim Club] recently. It was a private white swimming club and a group of black children contracted to use the pool. When the kids came and jumped in the pool, people complained it changed the “complexion” of the pool. They asked the children to leave. This is Philadelphia, the cradle of the North. This is 2009. This reminded me of when my grandfather was on a ship bound to Europe [in the early 20th century]. When he got into the pool [on the ship] he said all the white people jumped out. Whom did they harm? he said. Themselves. That is how pernicious prejudice was. They bothered themselves so much with their prejudice that they denied themselves the pleasure of swimming. They didn’t realize that my grandfather was a Yale scholar and spoke six to seven languages.
This is 2009 and we have made progress, but we have made inevitable progress. We aren’t anywhere near where we ought to be. There is still mistrust between law enforcement and black men and that is a history that isn’t very comforting or reassuring. These are issues that need to be addressed very deeply. It is a sad commentary when something like the Philadelphia incident makes headlines.
The NAACP recently celebrated its 100th anniversary in New York City two weeks ago and President Obama spoke at the event. What did the president speak about?
President Obama talked about America and said there is still work to be done, especially in employing young black men. He told them to look at their familial responsibilities and their role as protector. He was positive and hopeful and his speech resonated well with the audience.
What was your grandfather’s role in the organization?
My grandfather was 28-years-old [when he joined]. He was an orator of the first rank, and the NAACP needed a young guy to go out and sell the organization to the country. He went all across the country extolling the virtues of the NAACP and he organized the opening of more branches than anyone else [in the history of the NAACP]. I think they recognized that he was a talented young man. He was raised in Arkansas, but went on to Yale, and he felt the full whip of prejudice. He saw it in action every day and he could articulate the message of the NAACP to everyone . . . to churchgoing African American women. For 22 years he worked for the NAACP . . . as the director of branches and [later] as the field secretary.
The NAACP is a family heritage and a continuous family responsibility. My grandfather’s daughter Harriet was a life long member. My children are junior life members . . . and I have been a life member since I was five-years-old in 1941.
Did your grandfather expect to see a black president elected in his lifetime? Did you expect to see a black president elected in your lifetime?
In 1931, my grandfather gave a speech and said that over time we could expect a black man in the White House. It was obviously 1931 and it was a wildly hopeful thing to say, but it showed how much faith he had in America. As he saw the sweep of history, he could see what was happening . . . He always said to my father that the premise and the promise of America would have to meet someday. The premise had to catch up with the promise, one of the promises is that you can have an African American in the white house. It is an alignment that makes America work.
I was dubious that I would see it in my lifetime given the track record of my own life experiences. I am almost 73-years-old and I felt time was running out for me. I supported Obama wholeheartedly from the beginning, even though I was in general a fan of the Clintons, but I saw this as an opportunity. I was an earnest supporter from day one, but I never went to bed saying that he was going to be president, even on Election Day.
At a press conference held at the White House on July 22, President Obama was asked what the recent arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said about race relations in the country. Do you feel race played a role in his arrest?
I don’t believe it played a central role, but I think it played a strong peripheral role. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. [or "Skip"] is a friend of mine. I have known him for 35 years. He grew up in West Virginia, where the relationship with police isn’t very strong. I think that planted a seed of this kind of relationship not working out. Then he becomes an African American scholar and he begins to see this as a national problem. [On the day of the arrest] he had flown fifteen hours from China to Boston, so he was jet lagged and he is a little guy. He had a cane and a bad hip. He doesn’t have the keys to his home and he is frustrated and annoyed, but he gets into his house. Some one reports a burglary, which is fine [and understandable], when he gets into his house the cop shows up with his gun and his badge, and Skip is tired, annoyed. They exchange words that three or four days later are regrettable but understandable, given the known relationship between white police and African Americans. I have never heard a curse word out of that guy’s mouth. He is a scholar and a humanist, and the fact that this becomes an enormous story is regrettable.
I think the historic relationship has been lousy and in those three minutes, the police are in his home and he asks them to get out and then the guy cuffs him, which seems like a mistake to me. They put cuffs on him on his own porch.
I heard one guy say, can you imagine Henry Kissinger being arrested like that, but you kind of have to turn this thing on its head. A lot of black men were arrested on the same day, but it doesn’t make the front page. I, like the president, believe that doesn’t excuse bad behavior; but I think the context makes it more understandable.
Obviously, the racial climate was extremely different when your grandfather worked with the organization. What are the goals and focus of the NAACP today?
There are still too many black and Hispanic men in prison. We need to look at the criminal justice system and see if the severe penalties are justified. We need to look at the disproportionate numbers of unemployment for black people, some of whom have already gone to college. We need to help them stay focused, grow and prosper. There still has to be a focus on the question of how drugs come into our communities. Who are the movers and shakers for the drug business? And how does that happen and how do we put a stop to it.