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Lifting every voice

Membership has soared. Young people are showing up. And Michael Curry, the new president of the Boston NAACP, is just getting started.

By Scott Helman
May 29, 2011

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THE ADULTS ON THE SCHOOL BUS TOLD them not to be afraid, but it was an empty plea. Even the adults were terrified. How could they not be? Here were black kids from black neighborhoods rolling into white-dominated Charlestown after a federal judge ordered the desegregation of Boston schools. This was 1975. Michael Curry was 7 years old, a Roxbury boy assigned to the Warren/Prescott School for first grade. The bus passed the Museum of Science and made a right turn. And then things got rough.

Menacing crowds lined the streets, jeering, waving hostile signs, throwing rocks. Police officers in patrol cars and on motorcycles formed a protective corridor. Someone inside the bus told Curry to get his face out of the window so he wouldn’t get hit. “At that age,” Curry says now, “you can’t even fathom why someone would hate you.”

But the boy and the city survived. Both matured through some tough years. Both saw their views on race and community evolve. Both emerged with wounds and worked to heal them. Now, more than 35 years after those harrowing bus trips, Curry has taken over as president of the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the civil rights organization’s oldest branch, with the goal of reestablishing its voice in the civic conversation in its centennial year.

These days, no one’s hurling projectiles at elementary school pupils. No one’s thrusting flagpoles threateningly at black men on City Hall Plaza. The police and fire departments (also with federal prodding) have diversified. Boston in recent years voted for African-American candidates Barack Obama and Deval Patrick over white Democratic primary rivals, chose a black sheriff, and elected perhaps its most diverse City Council ever. We’ve come a ways these past few decades.

And yet, by many measures, urgent work remains, even overwhelms. It was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who warned in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? that integrating lunch counters and erasing blatant discrimination were only a start. “The absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice,” he wrote.

Just ask the black Harvard and Yale students and alumni who showed up for a party at Cure Lounge in the Theatre District after last November’s Harvard-Yale football game. The club, citing security concerns, abruptly closed and asked everyone to leave after black patrons began streaming in. Discrimination lingers, says Karen Payne, an information technology professional who led the Boston NAACP from 2007 to 2010. “It’s just wearing a different coat.”

And now so is the Boston NAACP. Curry, a 42-year-old lawyer and lobbyist, has embarked on a major push to restore the organization’s relevance, aggressively recruiting leaders and activists – many of them young and first-time NAACP members – to define and fulfill a fresh mission.

Even in the short term, the branch’s to-do list is daunting: build a politically powerful member base, get past a divisive NAACP election, and establish itself, once again, as a real force in the city. Oh, and its leaders have to move into a permanent office, raise a bunch of money, and quickly address a series of pressing concerns: a controversial proposal by the city to allow Boston agencies to trade data on youth, the superintendent’s plan to consolidate Boston schools, and a once-in-a-decade shot at shaping legislative and congressional redistricting. Not to mention all the persistent problems – the health crises in black communities, the limited diversity in executive suites and boardrooms, the discrimination complaints that pour in constantly.

“We have to get out of this philosophy that the work of the civil rights movement died with the civil rights movement,” Curry says. “We still are dying sooner. We still are suffering more. We still have a cement ceiling that we can’t get by.” Yes, he says, let’s acknowledge the progress represented by our black president and black governor. But, he says, “don’t make the exceptions the rule.”

***

AT ITS HEIGHT IN THE 1960s, the Boston NAACP counted 5,000 members and led high-profile campaigns to integrate city schools and public housing. The branch filed the lawsuit leading to the landmark 1974 school desegregation order by federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. Kenneth Guscott, a nuclear engineer and developer who was branch president from 1963 to 1968, says, “We had the advantage that conditions were so bad in the attitudes toward poor people and black people that the people united behind us.”

Indeed, the racial turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s gave the NAACP purpose. Tufts University professor James Jennings, who is black and Puerto Rican, remembers a day in the late 1970s when he and his wife, who had recently moved to the area, got lost in a white Boston enclave with their two kids in the car. They gulped when they saw up on a wall: “Niggers stay out.” For good measure, someone had written underneath, “And spics too.” “At one point, we did say, ‘What are we doing in this town?’ ” says Jennings, who laughs now at the memory.

The branch’s anti-discrimination work in that era had deep roots. The Boston NAACP’s founders, true to the national organization’s multiracial beginnings, were white abolitionists, their descendants, and black professionals. The first president in 1911 was a white, Roxbury-born lawyer named Moorfield Storey. Over the years, the branch became the preeminent advocate for people of color, getting a racist songbook removed from Boston schools, pushing businesses to hire minority workers, helping black youth pursue higher education, and lending a hand to civil rights struggles around the country.

Like many branches in the country, the all-volunteer Boston NAACP has seen ups and downs – leadership squabbles, money troubles, bitter disputes with the national organization. The branch once occupied a prominent facade on Massachusetts Avenue in the South End, but lately has set up shop in temporary space in The Mall of Roxbury. Its files are in storage. Membership, until last year’s election, had been relatively flat, at 200 to 250 people, though it had exceeded 1,000 in recent decades, Curry says. Many members, he says, complained that they would send in dues and never hear a word back. People began to ask: Is the NAACP still relevant?

Almost to a person, the activists, political figures, and community leaders I talked to described the NAACP in historical terms – a once-critical group whose voice and clout had waned. City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who worked for US Senator John Kerry in Boston from 2004 to 2009, says that when she used to refer constituents with discrimination complaints to the local NAACP, they hadn’t even considered it. “It was this iconic, abstract institution in their minds,” she says, “something static and kind of disconnected.”

Payne, the recent branch president, disputes the notion that the Boston NAACP was ineffectual under her tenure, citing its work on student dropout rates and HIV/AIDS awareness and testing. Plus, she says, people were always free to come in and help. “These are open meetings,” she says. “Get involved.”

But judging from the now-packed gatherings and many new NAACP faces – membership is north of 1,000 – Curry has clearly struck a chord with his message of reasserting the branch’s influence in public policy, in politics, in the neighborhoods, and in the media. “The voice that’s missing at the table,” he says, “is the NAACP’s.”

***

THE WATER WAS SO HOT it peeled the flesh from his feet. “The skin was basically falling off my body,” Curry says. He was young, maybe 3 years old. His aunt, who was just a teenager, was baby-sitting. She had drawn him a bath, unwittingly filling the tub with scalding water. When he got in, she misread his screams. She thought he was just being stubborn, so she kept pushing him back in.

Curry spent several weeks in the hospital with third-degree burns on his feet and ankles. Doctors took skin grafts from his thigh. As a boy, and into high school, Curry was so ashamed of how he looked that he wouldn’t go to beaches. Wouldn’t take his socks off.

But for Curry, as for many children of his generation who grew up in impoverished African-American neighborhoods, the scars went much deeper. His father was an alcoholic who left. His sister got hooked on crack, had two children who were in and out of state custody, and took to prostitution. Relatives were murdered. Uncles were in prison. He says he was held up at knifepoint, shot at, and, at around the age of 10, sexually assaulted in the hallway of his building in the Lenox Street project and saved by neighbors, who ran the attacker out. “I’ve seen some horrific things,” he says.

What he saw, though, gave him strength. Instead of emulating the dysfunction, his instinct was to run from it. His sister, his father, the drug dealers on the block – he told himself: This is exactly who I don’t want to be. “I began to think it happened the way it was supposed to happen,” Curry says. “Even bad examples are blessings.” “Michael’s always had his own vision,” says Eric Hill, a friend who grew up in the same Roxbury neighborhood and is now a tax attorney. That vision guided Curry to Boston Latin Academy, and then to Macalester College in St. Paul, where he led the black student union and helped push the school to recruit more students of color. He went on to earn a law degree from New England Law Boston.

For nearly 16 years, Curry worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts in government and community relations and in communications. He’s now legislative affairs director and senior counsel at the nonprofit Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. A few years ago, he bought a house in Brockton – he’s the first homeowner in his family, he says – and has shared custody of his three sons.

Along the way, Curry began promoting black arts and culture in Boston and, after attending Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C., in 1995, helped lead an effort to improve black neighborhoods back home. That initiative fizzled, but it led him to the NAACP, where he volunteered under then-president Leonard Alkins, heading the branch’s political and communication committees. He’s been involved ever since. Curry has also been active in political campaigns, including Governor Patrick’s, but has resisted repeated entreaties to run for office, believing it’s not his calling.

What is his calling, he says, is rebuilding the NAACP’s strength and using it to help families like his. Where prior generations of African-Americans faced Jim Crow laws and worse, Curry’s has known the devastation wrought by a crack epidemic, by persistent poverty, and by what he calls a “pipeline” carrying children of broken homes into lives of low self-worth, crime, and then prison.

Thanks to his forebears’ fight and his own drive, Curry has access to power, and knows its value. Armed with the deal-making savvy he’s learned as a lobbyist and the connections he’s forged from Beacon Hill to Blue Hill, he’s determined to use that access, he says, to push for improved schools, better housing, more economic opportunity, and a fairer criminal justice system.

Curry holds the legacy of discrimination partially responsible for much of what ails communities of color, but he also believes blacks and Latinos must own their share of the problems. That echoes what Roslyn Brock, the chairwoman of the national NAACP board, calls the organization’s “new frame” as it enters its second century with a younger generation of leaders. “We can’t expect somebody to do something for us if we can’t do something for ourselves,” says Brock, who, at 45, shares Curry’s generational vantage point.

More than anything, Curry says, it’s his Roxbury upbringing that informs his new mission. He says, “When people used to ask me, ‘Are you qualified to be NAACP president?’ I said, ‘Besides being a lawyer and having studied civil rights in law school and all that stuff, probably my biggest qualification is what I went through.’ ”

***

WHEN I MOVED HERE from Chicago in the late 1990s, a black friend, recalling Boston’s rocky racial history, said, in so many words, “Good luck to you, but don’t expect me to visit.” (He has traveled here for work and finds Boston not to his liking, but not because of racism; he just can’t stand the driving.) Right or wrong, that view endures. Around the country there is a perception that Boston’s social-cultural climate is not overly hospitable to people of color.

City and community leaders in recent years have often celebrated what they call “New Boston” – a vision of harmonious heterogeneity. Boston has clearly made strides, but many minority leaders told me that, in Pressley’s words, “We are not yet that City on a Hill.” Boston, says Pressley, who is 37, still struggles to draw and retain young professionals of color looking for a place to settle. Stephanie Soriano-Mills, a 35-year-old defense lawyer who heads the Boston NAACP’s legal redress committee, says that nearly all of her nonwhite friends from Boston University went elsewhere after graduation. She tells me, “We need to look at that, and say, ‘Why aren’t educated professionals of color staying after they get their education here?’ ”

Part of the reason may be that Boston, though racially and ethnically diverse, lacks the deep black professional class of Chicago or Atlanta or Washington. To the extent it does exist here, says Pressley, the first black woman elected to the City Council, there’s little integration between black and white social scenes. She says of her time in Washington: “We worship together. We break bread together. We cocktail together. We brunch together. There’s not a lot of that here.”

The Cure Lounge incident was a major setback, says Pressley, who worked with the state attorney general’s office to win a $30,000 fine and settlement agreement with the nightclub. The Harvard and Yale students and alumni – people you tend to want to keep or attract to your city – could have been investors in Boston or repeat visitors or, ultimately, residents, she says. Instead, Pressley says, “they left with their money.”

At the same time, many community leaders were heartened by the quick and firm response by city and state officials. “In generations past, who knows if there would have been a strong and swift reaction?” says City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo. Mo Cowan, the governor’s chief of staff, who has mentored young black professionals in the area, says Boston’s history sometimes blinds us to the reality that many cities still wrestle with prejudice and racism. “Too often people say, ‘Well, that only happens in Boston.’ Well, it doesn’t,” says Cowan, a 42-year-old North Carolina native who would wholeheartedly recommend Boston to other young professionals of color.

None of this is academic for Darnell Williams, head of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, whose programs help minority residents with job training and other services. Williams will host thousands of black visitors this summer for the national Urban League conference in Boston, its first here in 35 years. He looks forward to showing off his city, which he says may not be perfect but has made tremendous progress. Williams says, “I refuse – I flat-out refuse – to let an incident of any magnitude turn me to be hateful of a city I’ve come to love and that I live, worship, and work in.”

***

“I’M LOOKING AT the statistics, I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Natascha Saunders, a career coach who chairs the NAACP branch’s labor and industry committee, sounded exasperated. She had been studying how salary rates compare in different parts of Boston. She was shocked at the data, she said at a recent NAACP membership meeting. People who work in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan make significantly less than their counterparts in similar jobs downtown, Curry told the crowd. “Mm-hm,” came the response. No one sounded surprised.

To develop their game plan, Curry, Saunders, and the rest of the leadership team are poring over reports, consulting community leaders, and meeting with Mayor Thomas Menino, school Superintendent Carol Johnson, and other key figures. Branch leaders will have a trove of data to draw on this summer, when the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, with the Boston NAACP and the Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, releases the first-ever State of Black Boston report on how minority residents fare in health, education, and other areas.

The draft findings show stark disparities – nonwhite residents, who have made up a majority in Boston since 2000, have a higher infant mortality rate than whites, are more likely to drop out of school, are at higher risk of dying from heart disease, are disproportionately represented in prisons, and are twice as likely to have their mortgage applications rejected, even when compared with whites who make the same income. The list goes on. “For anyone who thinks we don’t need an NAACP anymore, this should show you why,” Curry said at a recent meeting of the branch’s executive board. “I don’t want to walk in a meeting and say, ‘Help black people.’ I want to say, ‘Here’s the history, and here’s the data.’”

Even though that history has begun to change, the great progress at the top – Obama is the country’s first black president, and Patrick the state’s first black governor – has not altered most people’s experience at the ground level, community leaders say. “So you embrace the milestone, but you stay focused on the work,” Williams says. Veteran Boston activist Melvin H. King likens discrimination and racial inequality to the curl in a pig’s tale: It always comes back if you let go. “The organization is relevant because now they’re going to try and keep that tail straight,” King says.

Under Curry, the Boston branch, for the first time, has established as a major priority youth violence, which has hit the city’s black neighborhoods hard. Some say it’s about time. “The NAACP should have been at the forefront of all these young people getting killed,” says Ron Bell, a senior adviser for community affairs in Patrick’s office. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s acceptable for a young black boy to die.”

But as the branch confronts the issue of violence, it faces an early test. Menino has proposed a system that would allow schools and social service agencies to share information about teenagers and their families, in hopes of exposing the underlying causes behind the shootings and stabbings. The idea has raised privacy concerns, and the NAACP has expressed skepticism, saying it will not support the “profiling of young people deemed to be at risk for violent behavior.” Curry and Stephanie Soriano-Mills met with Menino about the proposal, and the mayor invited the NAACP to have a seat at the negotiations.

By most accounts, Curry himself is a big reason the branch is growing again. He trades on his charm to persuade recruits to do a lot of work for no money. His social agility lets him connect with just about anybody. He carries himself almost like a dynamic high school teacher, his commanding presence laced with empathy. “People are flocking to the doors to be part of his team, and that is very inspiring,” Alkins says.

Curry belongs to a new slate of minority leaders – people like Pressley, Arroyo, City Councilor Tito Jackson, state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, and Newton Mayor Setti Warren, who just announced a campaign for US Senator Scott Brown’s seat in 2012 – that has begun making its mark. “This is a generation that has not had to go through the civil rights challenges that my generation went through,” says Joyce Ferriabough, 59, a media and political strategist long active in the black community. But, she says, “they really know they have been the beneficiaries of that work.” Some of that work was done by Dianne Wilkerson, a former state senator and onetime hotshot NAACP lawyer, and ex-city councilor Chuck Turner. Both fell from grace following corruption convictions in 2010, giving fresh urgency to the success of the new generation.

Curry is positioning himself as both heir and pioneer. At the NAACP meetings I went to, he and his team were paying tribute one minute to the work of their predecessors and the next talking as if they were building an organization from scratch.

The campaign for branch president last year, in which Curry beat Bill Owens, a 73-year-old former state senator, exposed a rift in the black community. Owens and his supporters suggested Curry was too cozy with the political establishment and would be unwilling to take it on. Curry says it became oversimplified as the Old Guard vs. the New Guard. “I had to say to the older guard, ‘Get to know me before you judge that I’m just another in a generation of folks that wants to . . . throw galas and have parties and run down the street holding hands,’ ” he says. “Understand that I know what the issues are today. I’ve seen it. I’ve been there.” Not everyone is necessarily convinced. “They see the fight as just in the boardroom,” says Jamarhl Crawford, an Owens supporter, activist, and publisher of the website Blackstonian.com. “That is a recipe for disaster.”

Menino told me after his meeting with Curry that he appreciated his tone. “It wasn’t, ‘If we don’t agree with you, we’re going to protest you,’ ” Menino says. “They want to work with us.” That’s true, Curry says, but he warns that the NAACP won’t shy from a fight. “I said to the mayor, ‘Don’t expect us to take positions that make you happy,’ ”

Curry said at a recent membership meeting. “We should be comfortable as advocates.”

Will he be comfortable? “I believe that he has it in him, but it certainly remains to be seen,” Ferriabough says. “The struggle, and this is really important to me, requires both negotiation and direct action. And that’s what the NAACP should be about.” At the end of the day, Jackson and others told me, what matters is: Can you deliver? “The folks who fought for us in the past, their end objective wasn’t the fight,” says Jackson, 36. “Their end objective was to make sure we had opportunity.” “He can be a star or hero, or he can be a footnote,” Darnell Williams says of Curry. “The script is up to him.”

***

THE SEATS AT ROXBURY Community College fill slowly at first. But gradually, people come. And keep coming: a woman with a young boy, whom she plies with a jumbo slice of cheese pizza; a man and his son, who plays math games on an iPhone; first-timers and NAACP veterans. More chairs are put out. In the end, nearly 80 people pack the room. This is how membership meetings have been lately, branch officials say. “I see the same people I used to party with 10 years ago now casting ballots and going to NAACP meetings,” says Carlos Henriquez, a 34-year-old community activist from Dorchester elected to the state House of Representatives last fall.

Natalie Carithers-Utley, 56, has been in the city her whole life, but joined the NAACP only last year with Curry’s election. “The NAACP here in Boston will be 100 years old. That is a major milestone,” says Carithers-Utley, now a member of the executive board. “And it’s time to come out of the shadows.” Natashia Williams, a 26-year-old from Malden, says: “It’s so good to see the reorganization and rebuilding. The history and foundation are there, but to regrow it and see the 2011 vision come to pass is really exciting.”

A woman in the second row is watching Curry closely as he leads the meeting. He fires up a presentation on a projection screen, and she begins to distribute paper copies. This, I learn, is Curry’s sister, Mary, the one who spiraled out of control years ago in Roxbury. She eventually recovered, with the help of church, family, and treatment. Now 48, she has worked as an HIV/AIDS counselor and says she will be sober 21 years in September.

“I’m not going to cry,” she tells me outside the meeting room, over her brother’s booming voice. She recounts the same shocking stories her brother had told me. “It’s been a climb,” she says. “But we made it.”

The meeting adjourns, and Michael Curry brings out a white sheet cake with blue and yellow icing to celebrate the branch’s 100 years. In the hallway, NAACP leaders have hung sign-up sheets for various committees, from education to religious affairs. Mary Curry is eagerly walking from sheet to sheet, black pen in hand, adding her name.

Scott Helman is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. He can be reached at shelman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @swhelman.

  • May 29, 2011 cover
  • May 29, 2011 cover
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A century of advocacy

1909 > The NAACP is founded on February 12 in New York.

1911 > The Boston NAACP is recognized as the organization’s first local branch.

1914 > The local branch persuades the Boston School Committee to remove a book containing racist language, Forty Best Songs, from schools.

1938 > The branch wins an extradition case preventing a fugitive from a Georgia chain gang caught in Boston from being sent back, a case that helped end Georgia’s chain-gang system.

1948 > Florence Lesueur is elected branch president, the first woman in NAACP history to lead a local branch.

1953 > The branch pushes the Meadows Restaurant in Framingham to hire a black waiter, marking the first time in the state that a major restaurant serving a white clientele had black and white servers working in the same dining room.

1960s > The branch battles with the city over segregation in its schools and in housing developments, and over a lack of code enforcement in privately owned apartments. Membership, at more than 5,000 people, is at its peak.

1972 > The branch files a lawsuit against the Boston School Committee over segregated schools, leading to the 1974 desegregation order by federal judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.

1980s > The city’s housing authority, under legal pressure from the Boston NAACP, agrees to desegregate its developments in a landmark settlement.

1990s > The national NAACP removes the Boston branch president and assumes oversight of local operations. The branch later gets new leadership and sets out to rebuild its reputation.

2000s > The Boston branch fights to have minority leaders and minority-owned companies at the forefront during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

2010 > Membership is lagging, then Michael Curry, a lawyer, lobbyist, and NAACP insider, runs for branch president and wins over former state senator Bill Owens. Curry’s goal: reestablishing the branch’s voice.

SOURCES: NAACP; Globe archives; Boston’s NAACP History, 1910-1982, by Robert C. Hayden