With the North Carolina General Assembly scheduled to open a special session on Wednesday, the new state NAACP president will be at the state halls of power leading in protest just as his predecessor did.
The Rev. T. Anthony Spearman became the leader of the organization in October after the Rev. William J. Barber II, a fiery Southern preacher often compared to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., stepped down to take his fight for equality national.
Coming on the heels of Barber, the architect of the “Moral Monday” movement who was a guest at the Vatican over the Thanksgiving weekend, Spearman is accustomed to the comparisons to his predecessor and comments about “the big shoes” to fill.
“I wear a size nine, nine and a half, and that’s the size I will continue to wear,” Spearman said Monday during a meeting with The News & Observer editorial board.
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Spearman, president of the NC Council of Churches, said he plans to continue with a “fusion movement” similar to the one Barber helped bring together over the past four years. The organization plans to keep its focus on a range of issues that include education equality, criminal justice reform, workers’ rights, anti-poverty, health care and immigration reform.
Spearman describes the South as having a “genteel apartheid,” or a veneer when it comes to race “that is draped in Southern hospitality” while persisting with inequities from a Jim Crow era that he contends never waned. He questions whether school desegregation was good for black students, but maintains that despite his views he can bring in a diversity of members to continue the work of his predecessor.
Rallying for fair courts
On Wednesday, the state NAACP will join with NC Voters for Clean Elections, Democracy NC, Progress NC, Common Cause NC, the Council of Churches, Equality NC and the AFL-CIO for a daylong event being billed as “The Fair Courts Day of Action.”
State lawmakers have been juggling several proposals to overhaul how North Carolina judges get to the bench — from a redistricting process that would create new election districts for judges and district attorneys across the state to the potential abandonment of judicial elections for a selection system that would give lawmakers a large role in deciding who sits on the bench.
Spearman has invited Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former state Supreme Court associate justice, to speak at 11 a.m. At 5 p.m., advocates for fair courts plan to gather in the atrium of the Legislative Building, a site where many Moral Monday arrests occurred, to speak out against the redistricting and selection plan proposals.
While Spearman has many similarities to Barber, their tones and styles are markedly different.
Spearman, more soft-spoken, was born in Port Chester, N.Y., and went to school there and in Rye, N.Y. His grandparents and extended family lived in and had deep ties to Cumberland County, and Spearman made many trips to North Carolina as a child.
As he pondered questions about whether there had been a revival of the Jim Crow era, Spearman, 66, recounted an experience he had as an 8-year-old in Fayetteville, while visiting his grandparents in nearby Eastover.
His grandfather, a farmer, had loaded up his truck with the grandchildren and driven into Fayetteville to treat them to what Spearman recalled as “some of the best fried chicken you’d ever want to eat.”
A grandfather’s message
With the exuberance of a child, Spearman darted out of the truck along the Person Street sidewalk. In his enthusiastic rush, Spearman bumped into a white man. His grandfather grabbed him with a force he was not used to and pulled him back and then gave him a stern talk when they got home about what to expect in a Southern town grappling with issues of desegregation and civil rights.
At his elementary school in Rye, Spearman was the only black student, and he remembers all eyes turning toward him when the lessons involved people of color. He also remembers being a distraught 16-year-old after King’s death on April 4, 1968, and his disdain for a decision by the Port Chester school system to hold class the next day.
“We were made to go to school and I was filled with anger that they made us go,” Spearman said explaining how as a teen he was “caught between the philosophy” of Malcolm X, who advocated for equality through black separatism and self-sufficiency, and King, who promoted nonviolent integration.
While at school that day, Spearman had trouble reining in his rage.
“I’m not proud of it, but I hit a white boy,” Spearman said. “All hell broke loose.”
Officials ended up canceling the rest of the school day. People took to the streets later that day.
Spearman’s father worked at a Beech-Nut Life Savers factory, and though he usually smelled like candy, his teenage son said he was not always so sweet to be around, especially if he was pushed into a disciplinary role. “My father got wind of what was going on and came to get me but I ran home,” Spearman recalled. But Spearman escaped his father’s wrath that day and was inside his home, safe from the arrests that followed that day in Port Chester.
Over the years, though, Spearman has warmed to the idea of arrest if he is engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience.
Three times, since the dawn of the Moral Monday movement, Spearman has been arrested while protesting the General Assembly. The charges have been dismissed, twice because a judge found the grounds on which the protesters were accused to be unconstitutional.
Spearman describes the General Assembly as “an unconstitutional body” because its members were elected in three election cycles with election maps in which 28 districts were declared to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that weaken the overall influence of North Carolina’s black voters.
Meetings with governor and chief justice
Though the NAACP has been able to organize meetings with Gov. Roy Cooper and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin to discuss the organization’s willingness to lend a voice on key issues such as criminal justice reform, General Assembly leaders have yet to respond to a request last month for a time to talk.
Like his predecessor, Spearman does not focus on partisan labels when talking about the Republican-led General Assembly. “I have some friends who are Republican and they are good Republicans,” Spearman said. “But I think these dudes are extremists. They’re rogues.”
Spearman won’t call President Donald Trump by his name, referring to him only as “Number 45” to signify his position as the 45th president.
Spearman has voiced his opposition to Trump’s judicial nominee for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Thomas Farr, a Raleigh lawyer who has represented Republicans on redistricting plans and voter ID laws found to be unconstitutional, is up for a lifetime position on the federal bench.
Spearman joins a chorus of other civil rights advocates as well as the Congressional Black Caucus in opposition to Farr, who also represented Jesse Helms when the former senator’s campaign was accused of sending out postcards trying to deter and mislead black voters.
Both of North Carolina’s senators support the Farr nomination, including Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican who would not submit the necessary paperwork, a “blue slip,” to move forward the names of two black women nominated by President Barack Obama to fill the long-vacant seat on the federal bench.
One of those women was Timmons-Goodson, the former Supreme Court justice who Spearman has invited to speak at the General Assembly rally on Wednesday. “Because of the color of her skin, Burr decided to hold on to her blue slip,” Spearman said Monday.
Burr, though, has said he did not put forward Obama’s nominees because the former president reneged on an agreement they had made about a different lawyer the senator supported for the seat. Burr has pointed to his support for African-American judicial nominees in other districts — such as Loretta Biggs in the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina and James Wynn, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals judge.
Spearman, who moved to North Carolina in 1995, is an ordained minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Prior to his pastoral career, Spearman worked in correctional institutions, hospitals, colleges and community-based programs as a substance abuse counselor.
He received a degree in behavioral sciences from Mercy College in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1995 shortly before experiencing a call to the ministry. He left New York, moved to North Carolina and enrolled in Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, where he completed his degree in 1998. In 2003, he received a doctoral degree from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
Spearman has been a member of the NAACP for 53 years and served as vice president of the state NAACP for the last six years of Barber’s tenure. He’s also the senior pastor of St. Phillip A.M.E. Zion Church in Greensboro and president of the Council of Churches, and has no plans to step down from those roles.
A husband to Janice Brunson Spearman for 47 years, Spearman has three grown children, five grandchildren and enjoys reading, playing chess and raising poodles. He is proficient in Greek, Hebrew and Spanish, according to the NAACP website.
During his time in the South, Spearman has served on the Hickory school board, an experience that makes him question whether desegregating schools was the right thing. While on the board, Spearman said he saw many statistics showing the gap between the achievement of black students and white students, as well as disproportionate suspension rates for black children.
With lagging test scores among black children, higher suspension rates and other statistical differences, Spearman said desegregation has not been the panacea that some pitched it to be. “I can’t say conclusively that I agree integration has been such a good thing,” Spearman said.
Spearman also highlighted a statement he made to the mayor of Hickory, an official with whom he often “butted heads” while living in Hickory, in response to questions about whether any strides had been made in the civil rights movement toward racial equality.
“My response was that I thought what was going on was a genteel apartheid,” Spearman said.
Despite his thoughts on “genteel apartheid” and his criticism of lawmakers and the president, Spearman said he believes he can bring people together to work for the state NAACP’s goals, though every once in a while the fight from his youth — a youth in which his father gave him his first NAACP card – might rise within him.
“I want to believe that I lean more toward the practice and philosophy of Dr. King but I vacillate, and that’s not to say that I don’t agree with or believe in the philosophy of Malcolm X because he, I think, may be proven to be one of the persons who has not received as much credit as he deserves to receive,” Spearman said. “So I vacillate.”
Joyce Johnson, an NAACP member from Greensboro, said one thing that would not vacillate under Spearman’s leadership was the organization’s mission, whoever is leading it. Spearman has honored the past, texting Barber most every night to discuss things, while moving toward the future. He has asked new N.C. NAACP executive director Terrance Ruth to give the organization a better presence online and on social media. He hopes to pull in younger members from college campus organizations.
Questions about whether Spearman can fill Barber’s shoes, Johnson said, reminded her of an earlier time and questions about two other civil rights leaders.
“It’s almost to me the question of Dr. King and Malcolm X,” Johnson said. “We are just blessed as an organization. The mission remains.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Spearman served on the Halifax County school board. He served on the Hickory school board.