CINCINNATI — The NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter sagged to a low point a few years ago, its membership the smallest it had been in decades. Some outside the chapter even questioned its relevancy — this in a city recently torn by racially tinged rioting.
But these days, unified and revived, the branch is set to host the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from July 12 to 17.
Presumptive presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama are expected to address more than 8,000 delegates from the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
Since Christopher Smitherman took over leadership of the chapter last year, membership has nearly tripled, from about 750 members to about 2,000.
The 40-year-old has pushed for the appointment of blacks to a steering committee for riverfront development and joined an unlikely coalition of anti-taxers, environmentalists and the Libertarian Party to defeat a proposal to build a new jail.
This year, he’s heading a petition drive fighting deployment of red-light cameras and a movement to create proportional representation on the City Council.
Smitherman was elected to one term in 2003, two years after riots prompted by the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. Days before Smitherman was sworn in, a black man died in police custody in a fast food restaurant’s parking lot.
Smitherman took the police and the chief to task and was turned out after one term. He believes he was falsely labeled and maligned because police officials were not used to having their account of events questioned.
“I thought my questioning was very appropriate,” Smitherman said. “The subject matter, oftentimes, made people in Cincinnati uncomfortable.”
Mike Allen, the Hamilton County prosecutor at the time and a former police officer, once called Smitherman a “smart-mouthed little punk.”
“That’s one I wished I had back,” said Allen, now in private law practice. “About two years ago, I saw him on the street downtown, and I apologized. I have been following what’s he’s doing, and although I do not agree with everything he does, he’s a fine young man.”
Smitherman calls himself a political independent and fiscal conservative molded by his dad, a chemist with Procter & Gamble, and his mother, a teacher and administrator in Cincinnati Public Schools. He has established a business as a financial adviser and estate planner.
“I don’t define myself as a rabble rouser,” Smitherman said. “I grew up in an upper-middle class family; I am upper-middle class. I’m very proud of that success. I’ve built this business from scratch, and it’s been able to take care of my family. My financial independence allows me to be independent politically.”
Smitherman knew some people had doubts about where he would take the local NAACP, but he believes he has allayed fears that he was only interested in bombast and boycotts.
“I’m not just an attack dog,” he said. “My time is spent on the phone negotiating with people, explaining our position.”
Longtime activist Marian Spencer, 88, is a sometime ally. Like Smitherman, she was president of the local NAACP and a member of City Council, both in the 1980s, and supported him in his takeover of the chapter.
“He was absolutely right in the concerns he had,” Spencer said. “I differed with him on the jail tax issue. We do not agree on everything. I’ve found him exceedingly capable, personable, though not always in the same place I am with the issues — and he doesn’t have to be.”