From the Editor: The Young and the Old

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Nana Watson is the president of of the local NAACP at the chapel where the NAACP meetings are held  at Trinity Baptist Church in Columbus July 21, 2017. Recently the NAACP has gained traction in helping shape issues in the Columbus community. [Eric Albrecht/Dispatch]

In our cover story this month, we profile several grassroots racial justice activists who’ve gained influence over the past year, upending Columbus’ traditional top-down power structure. The feature focuses on the emerging voices and organizations that have defined this new era of activism. But we would be remiss if we didn’t mention one more experienced hand—“or seasoned citizen,” as she likes to call herself. Right alongside this new breed of activists has been Nana Watson, the president of the Columbus branch of the NAACP, the country’s oldest civil rights organization.

Formed in 1915—six years after its parent was founded in New York—the Columbus NAACP chapter wasn’t a strong organization at first. In his 1998 book, “Getting Around Brown,” about the desegregation of the Columbus school district, Gregory S. Jacobs described the local branch as “historically ineffectual.” In fact, in the early part of the 20th century, the Vanguard League, a spinoff from the local NAACP, was the bigger force in Columbus, helping end the racial segregation of Downtown theaters and restaurants.

After that first success, the Vanguard League began to focus on integrating Columbus schools. The group failed to achieve this monumental task before it disbanded in 1950. But the NAACP maintained a presence in Columbus, and in 1973, Walter Cates, the newly elected president of the local chapter, was the force behind a lawsuit, Penick v. Columbus Board of Education, that eventually led to the long-desired racial justice goal.

It hasn’t been easy for the local NAACP to stay relevant all these years. When Watson took over as its president six years ago, it was going through a dark period. But since then, she’s expanded membership and stabilized its finances. She’s also raised the organization’s profile in recent years, successfully lobbying the city of Columbus to embrace police body cameras and working with Franklin County to expand its contracts with minority-owned businesses.

She’s also tried to connect with a younger generation, a task that NAACP branches throughout the country are struggling with in the era of more organic, grassroots groups. She’s revived moribund youth committees and embraced social media as a communication vehicle for rallying calls. “I’ve learned from our young people not to be fearful and just try it,” she says.

That said, she thinks the new generation can learn a lot from her, too. For instance, it’s not enough to just speak out against racism, she says. There also must be a policy goal, a clear objective, and she’s not sure if younger people recognize this often enough.

Does she view the Black Lives Matter movement—which has captivated so many young people—as competition for the NAACP? “No,” she says. “We’ve been around for 100-plus years, and when they’re gone or they decide to be no more, we’ll still be around.”