Most new presidents of organizations don’t take office by announcing their shoe size, but that’s been the case for the new head of North Carolina’s NAACP. The Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman mentions the number – 9 to 9.5 – because he keeps hearing how he has “big shoes to fill” as he takes over leadership of the civil rights organization from the Rev. William J. Barber II.
Spearman acknowledges Barber’s legacy in raising the N.C. NAACP’s profile and leading resistance against the agenda of the Republican-led General Assembly. But he emphasizes that the only shoes he can fill are his his own. “I can only do what T. Anthony Spearman can do,” he said in a meeting with The News & Observer’s editorial board last week.
What Spearman will do is continue Barber’s demonstrations at the General Assembly in the spirit of the civil rights leader whose birthday America honors today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The new NAACP president, a Greensboro pastor who also heads the North Carolina Council of Churches, is soft spoken but uncompromising. While many see great progress in race relations since King led the fight for justice, Spearman focuses on how much has not changed.
For Spearman, the Jim Crow Era was not an era. It is still with us. He sees it in efforts to suppress the black vote, unequal access to education and efforts to bend the courts to serve a conservative agenda. Like Barber, he is committed to asserting the rights of the working poor and minorities against Republican lawmakers he sees undoing those rights.
“I have some friends who are Republican, and they are good Republicans,” Spearman said. “But I think these dudes are extremists. They’re rogues.”
The NAACP joined other groups that turned out last week as the legislature convened for a special session. The groups are objecting to a new law making judicial races partisan and efforts to make all judges stand for re-election every two years. Ultimately, Republican leaders want all judges to be appointed by the legislature, a so-called merit selection process that really means Republican control of the courts.
It’s encouraging to see that the NAACP will continue advocating prominently against a legislative agenda that has undermined voting rights, civil rights and public education. Spearman said the NAACP and a coalition of other groups will press for criminal justice reform, educational equality, protection of immigrants, women’s rights, pro-worker legislation and greater access to health care.
Barber drew national attention as a leader of the “Moral Monday” demonstrations. He is taking that movement to the national level where he will lead a revival of the “poor people’s campaign” King launched in 1968. In North Carolina, Spearman will carry on the causes with his own style. His challenge isn’t to fill big shoes. His challenge is to remind leaders and voters of how important it is to walk in others’ shoes, the shoes of those who have less but deserve an equal measure of justice.