GREENSBORO — What started out as a sexual harassment claim against a supervisor in the NAACP’s North Carolina office has rallied women in leadership of the country’s oldest civil rights organization who want the group to give its own employees the energy it has pledged to the #MeToo movement.
The dozen or so women who stood in the chapel at Trinity AME Zion Wednesday — including female chapter presidents and state board members and a few men — represented hundreds of years of service and membership in the NAACP. Their work has been credited with everything from registering voters to organizing bus trips to Washington when the longtime former lawyer of segregationist Sen. Jessie Helms was up for a lifetime appointment to a federal bench in a largely minority North Carolina district. However, it marked the first time many of them have stepped from behind the scenes.
Many are recognized as Elder Women of the North Carolina NAACP, a distinction for leaders in the group.
“This is not an easy situation or moment for any of us,” said Bishop Tonyia Rawls, a state board member and longtime social justice activist from Charlotte, who like the others wore blue in support of victims of sexual harassment. “What we know is that we can no longer stand in the shadows.”
The women, who say they have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, are demanding that the organization, which in 2018 urged Congress to pass legislation to address and eliminate workplace harassment and discrimination, establish a policy for itself and a clear path to have those complaints addressed.
The North Carolina supervisor accused of sexual harassment is no longer employed with the organization, however, he remains a member, according to the women at the press conference.
While the state NAACP has a policy against sexual harassment, the national office does not — and the organization’s constitution and bylaws say that only the national office can discipline a member.
At the press conference, they gave a timeline of actions since the victim came forward two years ago and subsequent contact with Derrick Johnson, president of the national group. They also say they are speaking out because they’ve exhausted all internal means of handling the situation.
Johnson could not be reached for comment for this story but the women say there has to be a conversation on the national level.
Now they are reaching out to Johnson, the national president, publicly.
“The NAACP will be stronger, it will be better,” said Joyce Hobson Johnson of Greensboro, who joined the NAACP when she was 12 and is now the chair of the state group’s labor and industry committee.
When the unnamed woman made the claim against her supervisor in 2017, the North Carolina NAACP president at the time, the Rev. William Barber II, ordered an independent investigation of her allegations and hired an employment law attorney and law professor to conduct it. The target of the complaint resigned during the investigation, they said. At the conclusion of the five-month investigation, the independent investigators determined sexual harassment on at least two occasions, said Daphne Holmes-Johnson, another high-ranking member of the state chapter.
The former supervisor remains a member of the state NAACP and he has since been in the same gatherings and area where the alleged victim serves as a field secretary — something they find disturbing, Holmes-Johnson said. The woman sent a copy of the report to the national office to also proactively help other victims of sexual harassment.
Among others speaking out Wednesday was Anna Richards, who joined the NAACP as a child and is now the president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch. She recalled entering the workforce in the 1970s as part of the “first women in this job or that job” generation. She also witnessed the evolution of corporate policies to protect women by calling out sexual harassment and serving out stiff penalties to offenders.
“This is the reality that there is a price to pay in our society for these offenses,” Richards said. “We call on the NAACP to do no less.”
The woman who filed the complaint is a field organizer who works in the community to try to resolve problems.
“We taught this victim how to stand,” Rawls said. “We taught her how to organize. We taught her about principles of justice and fairness and equality. We did that.
“We stand here now to teach her and others like her, how when your requests are not met — as they are reasonable and just — that you don’t lay down in a corner and cower.”
The irony of the woman’s plight was not lost on Joyce Hobson Johnson, the chair of the state group’s labor and industry committee, which she describes as guarding the well-being of millions of working people in this state.
“So many of them are women who are subject to harassment while they work to feed their family,” she said.
O’Linda Watkins, president of the organization’s Moore County branch, contacted the national office again just last month.
“We will not be bullied by men who don’t think our trauma is real,” said Watkins, who organized two buses to Washington to lobby lawmakers on behalf of Loretta Lynch after she was nominated as the first black woman to serve as U.S. attorney general, a position for which she was eventually confirmed.
The women plan to take a bus trip to the organization’s Baltimore office in the weeks to come and to hold a press conference there.
“There is never a perfect time to bring charges against your family members,” Rawls said. “It is never comfortable nor convenient.
“What we have often been asked to do is to defer our trauma so that others can advance causes. We say no more.”