Late last month, Durham NAACP leader the Rev. Curtis Gatewood castigated a group of his colleagues for endorsing Superintendent Ann Denlinger’s plan to close the achievement gap, accusing them of breaking ranks without consulting black parents and community leaders who feel disenfranchised by the school system.
A few days later, Gatewood came out strongly against President Bush’s plan to attack Iraq, clashing with the historic civil rights group’s national leaders.
To round out the week, Gatewood wrote to Durham City Manager Marcia Conner demanding public restrooms for Durham’s bus depot, accusing the city of treating the predominantly minority bus riders inconsiderately, engendering a typically scolding editorial from his hometown newspaper for his “racist cant.”
In the midst of it all, Gatewood announced that come Dec. 31, somebody else would have to pick up the cry for economic and social justice within the Bull City, because he’s leaving office, and maybe town.
“While I haven’t done everything I wanted to do, I can say there’s been a precedent set on having to deal with issues in this community,” says Gatewood, who tentatively plans to move with his wife and daughter up to Warren County, near his wife’s hometown of Manson.
After serving four two-year terms, Gatewood doesn’t plan to seek re-election this fall. In addition to his potential move, he cites a broader philosophical reason.
“I wanted to allow myself some flexibility. I want more room to move forward with the vision I have,” outside the bounds of the NAACP’s formal mission, he says. For example, his anti-war stance brought him a reprimand from national NAACP headquarters last September, when he came out against action in Afghanistan after Sept. 11. Then last month, national Chairman Julian Bond rebuffed Gatewood’s plea for the NAACP to oppose the “president-select’s” plan to attack Iraq. Bond, himself a Vietnam war protest organizer, gently reminded Gatewood that the NAACP’s focus is on domestic civil rights, not foreign policy.
Gatewood isn’t sure what his next career move will be, but says he will be “seeking justice on a larger scale.” He’s intrigued by the idea of reviving Soul City, a planned African-American community near Manson that embodies an unfulfilled dream of another black Durham leader, Floyd McKissick Sr.
Meanwhile, the future of the Durham chapter is also uncertain. A meeting called to create a nominating committee for new leaders failed to draw a quorum, with less than a dozen of the group’s 400 dues-paying members attending. That leaves the election in limbo and possibly subjects the local chapter to state intervention, Gatewood says. Secretary Anita Keith-Foust, the most politically active of the group’s remaining officers, says she doesn’t want the top job. Still, Gatewood says the Durham NAACP has gained a wide reputation for keeping the spotlight on racial inequalities, and he continues to field calls from African Americans across the state who lack a local chapter of their own.
“It’s indisputable that the Durham NAACP has become known as a group that deals with issues,” says its leader. “I don’t think people in Durham are going to tolerate an organization that you never hear from until it’s time for the banquet.”