By Charles Hallman
Jeffry Martin became St. Paul NAACP president in January. “My vision for the St. Paul NAACP is right in line with the national vision,” said Martin last week in an interview with the MSR. “I think we have to get people within our community to see the NAACP as being theirs.”
Martin said he’s proud to carry on the work of the branch, which began early in the 20th century and continued most recently under Nathaniel Khaliq’s leadership. “The St. Paul NAACP has a very unique, rich heritage within the national [NAACP] heritage. From the very start, before the first brick was laid, St. Paul had a part in the [national organization’s storied history].
“I ran unopposed,” Martin continued. He was elected to succeed Khaliq, whose term as branch president had expired in January. “Under his leadership, a lot of great things took place in St. Paul. So my goal is definitely to keep that going.”
Martin admits that “new blood” is needed in his organization to continue to address the current issues facing it. “I think we have to go to them,” he notes of recruiting new members.
“They are not going to volunteer for something they don’t know anything about. We have to get back into the churches and do more of those traditional things, like membership drives and NAACP Sundays we used to have, and educate our people of the relevance of the NAACP.”
His “first exposure” to the NAACP came shortly after relocating to the area from Illinois in 1991 and becoming involved with criminal justice issues. “I found myself working with people who had a lot of barriers in their life, helping them to stay out of the workhouse and out of prison,” he recalled. He then got involved with Ramsey County.
“What I saw there when I got there was unfair hiring practices… The clientele was highly people of color, but the people that worked with those people were not of color and weren’t concerned or ever wanted to know about the people they served.
“We found ourselves as odds with the administration, so we were considering legal action. I reached out to the NAACP, and that’s where Nick [Khaliq] and I met.”
Martin officially became a working member of the St. Paul NAACP in 2007. A licensed attorney and graduate of the William Mitchell School of Law, he soon found himself on the branch’s legal redress committee.
Over the years, there have been rumors about possibly merging the St. Paul and Minneapolis NAACP branches. Martin sees problems with that idea: “I think there is a need to separate the branches. The issues are so great… I think if you combine the two, you might take that [to mean] there are not as many needs to have both organizations.”
Among the St. Paul NAACP’s current priority issues are the capital city’s police department internal affairs policies and the Central Corridor light rail project, said Martin. However, the current “hot button” issue is the St. Paul Public Schools restructuring plan recently approved by its school board. According to Superintendent Valeria Silva, the plan would help close the achievement gap between Whites and students of color.
Martin said that after attending a couple of community meetings earlier this year, “I found out that there was a lack of information on the plan.” He “solicited some help from an independent body to look at this plan with non-NAACP eyes and tell me if this makes sense not only for communities of color, but also for St. Paul.”
He, other NAACP members, and other community folk also met with Silva and school board members, Martin explained. “We specifically asked how this plan is going to affect our community. How are we going to prevent resegregation? We asked for that data that they said they had regarding how this plan wasn’t going to resegregate. We wanted to make a fully informed decision on whatever this plan was — good or bad.”
The St. Paul NAACP concluded that the plan “would further segregate the schools by race and income” and requested that before it was unanimously approved March 15 the school board table it for at least 90 days, said Martin.
“The school board voted for a plan, and they haven’t outlined where the attendance boundaries are going to be and what access to what schools people are going to have. That is going to be the key to whether or not you resegregate.”
He also questions the true motives behind the plan. “If a decision was made on straight financial reasons, then that should be the way [school officials] should sell to the community,” he stated. “But to say that we are doing this because we are trying to close the achievement gap is dishonest. What you actually are doing is putting a greater pot of money at risk.”
Contrary to some mainstream media reports claiming that the St. Paul school plan has divided the city’s Black community, Martin counters, “There has been a lot of misinformation out there. There is not a split, and we are not in-fighting over this. We are 100 percent united on [opposing the plan].”
Finally, Martin wants to ensure everyone that the St. Paul NAACP is “alive.”
“This is not a one-person organization,” he pointed out. “Number one, it is a national organization, and number two, it is a community organization. This is not a one-person organization.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.