Curry, Owens vie to lead NAACP Boston

Bridgit Brown | 11/23/2010, 4:21 a.m.

Michael Curry has a vivid memory of his mother taking the bus to school with him one day and getting into a confrontation with a white man who was standing outside of the school heckling, “You don’t belong here. Go back to where you came from!”

Today, the 42-year-old Curry points to himself and says, “When they lined the streets and threw rocks at the buses taking children to school in Charlestown, I was a kid on one of those buses.”

This experience left an indelible impression upon Curry and many of his contemporaries.  

As a candidate for the presidency of the Boston Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Curry wants to put not only young blood into the venerable civil rights organization but also “context.”

“We are only a historical minute out of segregation and if you understand it as a historical minute then it would be ridiculous to think that racism is gone,” Curry said.

But Curry, a Roxbury-bred lawyer who is now the legislative director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Health Centers, must convince the NAACP membership that he is the one to lead the group out of its recent public doldrums. That task is more difficult given the opposition to his candidacy by Juan Cofield, president of the New England area conference of the NAACP and Boston branch treasurer.

Cofield and others recruited former state Sen. Bill Owens to run against Curry. A native of Demopolis, Ala., Owens, 73, came to prominence in the late 1960s as director of the Community Education Project of the Urban League, co-founder of the Boston Education Alliance and director of Jobs and Employment for Self-Improvement, a statewide program sponsored by the University of Massachusetts.

Owens entered the Legislature in 1972 as the state representative from Mattapan’s Ward 14. Two years later, he bested fellow state Rep. Royal Bolling Sr. to become the first senator from the newly formed Second Suffolk District.

He held the seat until 1982, when he changed courses, ran as a registered Republican and was upended by Bolling. Owens later returned to the Democratic Party, recapturing the Second Suffolk seat in 1988 before being upset in 1992 by Dianne Wilkerson after a contentious campaign. In 1997, he mounted an unsuccessful bid to oust Charles C. Yancey from his District 4 City Council seat.

These days Owens has an office at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he works on issues involving black men’s health. “The first thing is that the organization needs to be rebuilt, and in rebuilding it I intend to expand the membership,” Owens said.

On that point, both Owens and Curry agree, as they do on the chronic problems plaguing minorities in Boston, everything from high incarceration rates to low employment.

Curry says the race is a good thing.

“It’s good for an organization that has been lacking the capacity to have an election that is this widely watched. It hasn’t happened for at least 15 years,” Curry told the Banner.