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Curry, Owens vie to lead NAACP Boston

Bridgit Brown

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.

A little less than 15 years ago, Curry was fresh out of college, and joined the NAACP under former president Leonard Alkins who ran uncontested for many years.

“He probably would have stepped down after six or seven years, but nobody raised their hands to be the president and Lenny said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it another two years then.”

Under Alkins, Curry began his community organizing work for the NAACP.  During his 12 years of membership, he chaired the political action committee for four years and spent five years as chair of the communications committee, writing speeches for Alkins, taking part in the development of policy papers, and standing in on his behalf at committee hearings and public and private events.

Curry says that Alkins would say to him, “Pick an issue and just go at it.”

His first campaign was “Knock Across Boston” in 2000, which was modeled after the national organization’s “Knock Across America” campaign that focused on getting communities of color throughout the country to vote.

“I wanted to be as methodic as candidates are when they’re trying to get out the vote. We picked blocks, and created block captains. We used provocative images that drew on the interest of a young person or an older person, like the one with the kids getting hosed in Birmingham. We had as a caption: ‘We fought so hard for it, yet we still don’t do it.’ ”

Coincidentally, the city of Boston and the general elections saw the greatest increase in voter turnout among communities of color that year.

“There was no doubt in my mind that the success of that campaign was due to the practice of strong collaboration and the use of tools that can effectively mobilize people,“ said Curry.  

In reflection, one of the things that he appreciated most about Alkins was his understanding of how young people can motivate each other. “Marketing for today is not like marketing 30 years ago, and Lenny trusted me. He could have been very traditional, but he let us do it.”

It was Alkins who advised Curry to hold back from running three years ago when he was very anxious. Even then, no one had stepped up to the plate and as a result the organization initiated a search for a new president. That spot was filled by Karen Payne, who recently stepped down to wage an unsuccessful campaign for a state representative seat.

“I was in law school, and I was thinking about running, but Lenny told me that I couldn’t do two things at once. He told me, ‘Go to school and focus on your studies, pass the bar and then come back.’ ”

As president, Curry wants to build stronger collaborations between the NAACP, individuals and organizations that have access to people, a strategy that he thinks might scare some older black residents.

“There is a small percentage of the Old Guard that thinks that we should stick with our own, but my philosophy is this: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the table.’ We don’t want to show up when the pie is sliced, and be the bomb-thrower at the door, saying, ‘You didn’t cut us a piece.’ We want to be invited to the meeting to make sure that we cut our own slice so that the cut is big enough to impact our community.”

Curry also wants to create reality-based solutions using quantitative data like those found in the State of Black Boston, a daunting report produced by James Jennings, a Tufts University professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning.

Another issue that Curry knows all too well is the inability to use the talent of a younger generation to solve the problems confronting the black community. He illustrates his point about this with a story about coming home from college in the 1990s and wanting to get involved with Gang Peace, an organization that emerged in the 1989 to counter gang violence in Boston.  

“I told Rodney Daley that I wanted to volunteer. He asked me if I could come in between 9 and 5. I couldn’t do it because I just got a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield. So he said, ‘I really can’t use you. We need somebody who will be here from 9 to 5.’ ”

Once again, Curry points to himself.

“I grew up in the projects with a single mother. My sister was a crack addict for most of my teenage and adult life; my father was an alcoholic who hung out in Northampton Station. I grew up seeing people shot, stabbed, beat up, all of my life. I don’t think it was Rodney’s fault at all though. I think that there is just a misunderstanding about how to use a younger generation of talent that has emerged in our communities, and there’s way too much talent among us to be wasted.”

The Boston Branch of the NAACP will hold its election on Monday, Nov. 29, 2010 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Media Arts building at Roxbury Community College.