The Lebanon County branch of the NAACP, which formed in 2020 with high hopes of achieving national recognition, earned official branch status earlier this year and has gotten to work meeting the needs of local minority communities.
“Our county is changing. The dynamic of its people is changing,” branch president Tony Fields, pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Fredericksburg, told LebTown.
“We want to be a healthy community for our people,” Fields said. “We need open conversations, to hear the concerns of the people, to validate each color and to be in a relationship with each other. Everyone has rights. Everyone is valuable in our community. Everyone brings something unique to our community.”
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the largest and most prominent civil rights organization in the United States, with more than 2,200 units and branches across the country and 2 million members, according to NAACP.org.
Originally known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization was formed in New York City to counter the ongoing violence against African Americans around the country. Although its original mission was to stop lynchings in the U.S., it evolved through the civil rights era to challenge Jim Crow laws and, today, focuses on issues including inequality in jobs, education, health care, the criminal justice system and voting rights.
The Lebanon County branch came together in the fall of 2020. It earned recognition from the national organization by the following May and became an active and independent branch by late summer with the election of officers to its executive committee, Fields explained.
The goals of the local branch mirror the national organization closely, he said – but with a focus on Lebanon County’s needs.
He said voter rights, criminal justice reform, economic justice and employment discrimination are among the branch’s primary goals.
“When I was young, we learned about the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ – I want to be sure I get this right – ‘that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ We want to be sure that this is true for all the people of Lebanon County.”
That means revisiting the old view of America as a “melting pot,” Fields said.
“Lebanon County, we’re like a fruit salad bowl,” he said. “We have many different ingredients in the bowl, and they’re all unique. We don’t want to be a melting pot, where everyone blends together. … We want everyone to use their unique gifts for our community.”
A growing membership
Besides Fields, the executive committee is Joseph Romanoff, vice president; Michael Schroeder, secretary; Taelor Norwood, assistant secretary; Ali Perrotto, treasurer; and members at large MariaCristina Brabham, Lori Burrus, John Rose, Pat Steely, Cornell Wilson and Maurice Williams, according to their website.
Having a growing membership and an active leadership were vital to attain recognition for the local branch – which now has more than 170 active, dues-paying members, Fields said.
“We had to make sure that we had the people who were willing to be a part of the NAACP,” he explained. “We had to have members … that made their voices known, that wanted the NAACP to happen in Lebanon County.”
Earlier this fall, the branch formed four standing committees: Education, Criminal Justice & Public Safety, LGBTQ+ Empowerment, and Voting Rights & Political Engagement. The group is in the process of creating Legal Redress and Youth committees as well.
The general membership meets via Zoom at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month. The branch welcomes new members; Fields said anyone interested in participating should contact secretary Michael Schroeder through the website for more information.
“We want to be the hands and the feet of the people in the county,” Fields said. “So it’s important that we hear their voices, their issues and concerns.”
He added: “We’d love to hear from you. Let us know how you want to be engaged and get involved in Lebanon County.”
The local group came together in the wake of nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd, caused by a Minneapolis police officer while he was in custody. Organizers locally said then that they had seen examples of Black people being targeted here as well.
Kenneth Huston, president of the Pennsylvania NAACP, told the Lebanon Daily News last year that there was a “desperate need” for a branch in Lebanon.
“We’re more than just those that come in and put out the fire. We try to prevent the fire from happening in our respective communities,” Huston said then.
Fields told LebTown that branch members are “hearing the concerns” from the local community about challenges to voting rights and political engagement.
“People are being more proactive, going out and having a conversation about things,” he said. “We’re advocating, looking at the laws and the policies, going to the courthouse, meeting with the mayor. … Things are moving.”
They want local officials to know “they’re not working alone,” he added. “We want to work with them to make our community a better place.”
Another of their main objectives, Fields said, is to grow their membership further, so “people know that they have a place where their voices can be heard. They can join us — and know that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is happening for everyone in our community, not just a few.”
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