NAACP in Springfield seeks to renew energy, membership

Published: Sunday, January 15, 2012
By Jack Flynn, The Republican

The Republican / Don Treeger - Rev. Talbert W. Swan II, president of the Springfield NAACP, talks with the editorial board of The Republican.

SPRINGFIELD – At the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday ceremony Friday at City Hall, the Rev. Talbert W. Swan II offered a brief history lesson for younger members of the audience.

The causes championed by King five decades ago are the same ones civil rights activists are campaigning for today, said Swan, the new president of the Springfield’s NAACP chapter.

“Jobs and justice,” Swan told the overflow crowd, including students from the city’s Martin Luther King Charter School of Excellence.

“Just as in 1963, we find ourselves in the same predicament today, needing jobs and justice,” he said.

Five decades after playing a pivotal role in Springfield’s civil rights struggle, the local chapter is seeking to recapture the urgency of the 1960s and channel it into social and economic change.

In the past year, the Springfield chapter has recruited about 100 new members to carry out an agenda that puts new emphasis on health, education and economic empowerment along with more familiar issues like law enforcement practices and sentencing reform.

The nephew of state Rep. Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield, Talbert Swan won 77 percent of the vote to become president of the Springfield NAACP branch in the group’s first contested election in more than a decade.

With the influx of new members, the group’s membership is about 500 and expected to grow in coming months as the sole active chapter representing the Pioneer Valley.

Founded in 1918, the chapter had been dormant in recent years. In the 1980, membership reached about 1,400, but slowly declined. In 2001, the departure of former president Darnell Williams, who left for a job in Boston, created a leadership void.

In a sign of revival, the chapter is resuming its annual membership dinner and is sponsoring a series of speakers for Black History month.

Equally important, the chapter is reaching out to younger members, including students at local colleges, and to the Hispanic community in Greater Springfield.

The group’s expanded mission was illustrated last month when Swan called for the censure of an Easthampton city councilor who made an apparently disparaging remark about Puerto Ricans during a meeting in December.

Swan also suggested that the councilor, Donald L. Cykowski, should consider resigning.

Cykowski apologized but refused to resign; the council later adopted a resolution condemning discrimination and intolerance.

Meeting with The Republican’s editorial board last week, Swan conceded that that too little had been done to reach out to Hispanics in the past.

As for recruiting younger members, Swan said too many have a vague understanding of the NAACP’s history, just as they fail to fully appreciate the role that Martin Luther King Jr. played breaking down barriers for black people.

At Friday’s ceremony at City Hall, Swan offered a chilling example of history repeating itself.

Recalling the convictions of three Springfield men last year for burning the Macedonia Church of God in Christ hours after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Swan said: “That didn’t happen in Mississippi or Alabama; it happened right here in good old metropolitan, liberal Springfield.”

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