And there are places the president of the NAACP is just not expected to be. Such as a prison, in Maine [Maine State Prison], which, according to census projections, is 95.3 percent white, making it the whitest state in the country.
Though the organization has 2,200 chapters, Jealous [Benjamin Todd Jealous, the national president of the NAACP] has taken a special interest in this Maine group because of the NAACP’s ongoing attempts to reach beyond its core in the black community. The association’s membership has been stagnant at about half a million members for years, and part of Jealous’s plan to increase that number is to be more inclusive.
He has formed an alliance around health-care reform with the country’s largest Latino advocacy group, and in recent speeches has highlighted examples of diversity in the NAACP’s ranks: the Bangladeshi chapter president in Hamtramck, Mich.; the Southeast Asian presidents in Seattle and San Jose; the Latino executive committee members in the Southwest; the Native American members in Alabama and Oklahoma.
More than any other example, though, the Maine prison chapter has become a kind of symbol of the 100-year-old civil rights group finding its way on the shifting terrain of race. Jealous talks about the chapter frequently, and as he deals with questions about the organization’s relevance since Barack Obama was elected to the White House, he has returned here again and again.
A voice for inmates
The man Jealous is talking to is William “Billy” Flynn, who is in for 28 years to life and is also president of the prison chapter [of the NAACP]. “All right, gentlemen,” Flynn says, stepping to the microphone.
“There’s some confusion when people see an Irish guy as president of the NAACP chapter,” Flynn says later. “I’ve had my fair share of comments.”
Standing behind the poster of Malcolm X, Flynn talks about what he considers the lack of rights for prisoners. Sentenced at 16 after pleading guilty to a highly publicized New Hampshire murder, Flynn, now 35, has spent his adult life behind bars. He did not know anything about the NAACP when he arrived and is surprised to learn that he is one of the few whites leading an organization chapter.
And if the question is why he is in the association at all, he explains that it seems better than the Jaycees and the Longtimers, the only other organizations the prison allows, because the NAACP chapter receives outside support. The leaders of the Portland NAACP branch and Jealous have been willing to meet with prison officials on behalf of the inmates. With “an extra-powerful support group on the street,” Flynn says the prisoners can get the officials’ attention. They have been able to get them to grant them lower phone rates and to issue new rules that let social groups meet more often.
Joseph “JJ” Jackson–the chapter’s vice president, who is black–was locked up in May 1995 and knows Flynn well. “This is a black organization, but you have that felon beside your name and that makes you a minority,” he says. “You’re treated like you’re black. Frankly, everybody needs civil rights here.”
Flynn and Jackson take their work seriously. Flynn says he runs his meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order and mails out the minutes to the Portland branch of the NAACP, which sends them to the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore, where Jealous’s assistant reviews them. Together, the inmates and their backers on the outside were able to organize this meeting, where prisoners can register to vote.
During the gathering, Flynn tells the inmates seated before him in plastic chairs that Maine is one of only two states that gives inmates that right. He soon finishes his speech and sits down while the men fill out their cards.
A rainbow of prisoners
Then Jealous speaks. He takes a moment to look out at his audience. A Native American with long black hair is sitting four rows from the front; and two black men, one bald and another with cornrows, are sitting in the back row. A Latino man is near the front, and a South Asian man is in the center of the crowd. The rest are white.
“It was pointed out that the name of the NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. That confuses folks sometimes,” says Jealous, standing behind the wooden lectern. “As they say, colored people come in all colors.”