The Rev. Curtis Gatewood leans over a large, cluttered desk while fielding a phone call in his downtown Durham office. The walls behind him are adorned with gold-plated plaques and wood-framed certificates received during his six-year tenure as president of the Durham NAACP. A number of these awards bear the seals of local, state and national offices of the NAACP and cite his effective leadership of the Durham chapter.
But a month ago, Gatewood was not welcome in his branch office, and no one in his organization was giving him any awards. On Feb. 19, at its national headquarters in Baltimore, the NAACP’s board of directors voted to suspend him indefinitely for failing to pay for a campaign ad secured during an earlier bid for state NAACP president. The ruling stemmed from a complaint filed by the host committee of the October 1997 state convention in Raleigh, where Gatewood unsuccessfully challenged incumbent president Melvin “Skip” Alston.
“I never refused to pay for the ad,” says Gatewood, who has since paid and was reinstated as branch president on March 13. “I merely asked for a written explanation on how the ad rates were being charged, since I suspected foul play.”
Gatewood’s suspicions arose from the disparate quality and placement of the campaign ads he and Alston received. For two years, he has questioned why the host committee–which was composed of the presidents of the three Wake County NAACP branches–gave Alston a more visible and higher-quality ad on their convention brochure, when both candidates were charged the same price of $250. Gatewood’s vow to make payment only upon receiving an explanation would culminate with his recent suspension.
But questions now surround the suspension itself.
Gatewood was informed of his temporary removal via a letter faxed to his office from national headquarters. Prior to the fax, he was never given a hearing.
“There are certain regulations and guidelines regarding the suspension process and the provision of a fair hearing,” says attorney Larry Hall, first vice president of the Durham chapter. He refers to Article 10 of the national organization’s constitution, which entitles officers to “a full hearing” prior to such disciplinary action.
The outspoken Gatewood also feels he’s suffering the consequences of marching to his own drum in a state where his organization is “too closely aligned with the governor’s office.” In early February, when the N.C. NAACP made Gov. Hunt the first white person to receive its Humanitarian Award, Gatewood publicly boycotted the ceremony and sent a three-page letter to the state branch highlighting Hunt’s “failures”–the continuing education gap between black and white children, the lack of fair opportunities for minority contractors, and Hunt’s “hard-nosed” approach toward capital punishment. He concluded by writing, “If some of you within the state NAACP suddenly feel you must overlook the thousands of black people who are working hard in our communities to find a white man to honor, I challenge you to find one whose so-called ‘humanitarian’ deeds are not overshadowed by his overwhelming acts of injustice!”
On Feb. 29, Gatewood called the national organization to inquire about the steps that led to his suspension. The office informed him (and subsequently The Independent) that the board decided to approve the host committee’s request for suspension based on a recommendation made by a subcommittee, the committee on branches. Gatewood was well aware that this committee is chaired by a high-ranking board officer, Carolyn Coleman. He was also aware that Coleman serves in the Hunt administration as special assistant to the governor.
“Any dispute between branches comes before my committee,” explains Coleman. To avoid any hint of impropriety, she continues, “I recused myself from the board’s vote for suspension, even though the matter took place in my home state. And that’s something I didn’t have to do.”
But even though Coleman didn’t vote, Gatewood feels the influence she exerts in both camps, at least, suggests a “conflict of interest” and is further indicative of an organization “in bed with the governor’s office.” He cites the state and Raleigh chapters’ failure to protest such issues as the execution of Dawud Abdullah Muhammad, an African American whose highly questionable murder conviction was rife with prosecutorial misconduct, the alarming number of black students being suspended, classified and failing to graduate throughout the state; and the inequitable treatment of minority contractors, which resulted in a lawsuit filed against the state by the Carolina Association of Minority Contractors.
“The main reason I sought the state presidency in the first place was out of concern over this unhealthy relationship,” says Gatewood. “The state chapter is no longer able to objectively regard the issues facing African Americans.”
Coleman admittedly takes these comments personally and, at the 1997 state convention, she told Gatewood such rhetoric was “an insult. The NAACP is a non-partisan entity and I’ve never used my [political] position to influence or endorse any of its policies.”
Two weeks after the convention, tensions were initiated by an interview Alston did with The Carolinian. After The News & Observer erroneously reported he had spent $2,500 to secure a colorful, glossy spot on the brochure’s back cover, Alston informed The Carolinian that “he only spent $250 on the ad.” This admission floored Gatewood who, along with The N&O, assumed Alston had paid the going commercial rate for a back-cover ad. Along with the fact that Alston received a huge break in price, Gatewood was troubled by the obvious disparities in ad placement and appearance.
“I received your basic black-and-white ad–nothing fancy,” says Gatewood. But for the exact same price, he continues, Alston got a “beautiful” spot on the coveted back cover where, “if someone were to drop the booklet, there’s a 50 percent chance they’re going to see your face.”
Alston’s ad was also printed up in the organization’s gold and blue colors, giving it a similar appearance and texture to the front cover. It bore the slogan “Let’s keep Skip Alston.”
“It easily could have given voting delegates the wrong impression that the state or national NAACP had endorsed Alston,” says Gatewood.
Upon being billed after the election, Gatewood phoned Ronald White, the branch leader who presided over the host committee, and demanded an explanation for the differences in ads and an actual rate sheet for candidates, as opposed to their commercial price listings. According to The Carolinian, the phone call became heated and ended abruptly with Gatewood still “waiting for the ad sheet showing the price of the back cover,” and White “waiting for his bill to be paid.”
The stalemate continued for almost two years. Finally, this past September, a fed-up White filed a formal complaint with the national office on behalf of the host committee. The national office launched an investigation into the matter and, on Oct. 16, voted to require Gatewood to pay the outstanding debt. They also ruled that White’s group would have to supply Gatewood with an official explanation of the disparate treatment of the two campaign spots. The resulting letter stipulated that both actions occur by Nov. 25.
Ultimately, the ruling would make matters worse. Because it was ambiguous in nature, both sides were unsure which action was supposed to occur first. The ruling also failed to specify where and to whom Gatewood’s payment should be forwarded, which was far from obvious, given that the host committee and its bank account had been disbanded long before.
On Oct. 25, in what he refers to as a “good faith” effort to settle the issue, Gatewood appeared at a state executive committee meeting in Greensboro with a blank money order for $250 in hand. But none of the branch presidents from the host committee were in attendance, and no one could supply information on who the payment should be made to. He left the meeting without paying the debt or being supplied a justification for his ad.
In late December, Gatewood received a certified letter from White stating that the back cover was given to Alston after the printer of the convention booklet declined it as a self-advertising option, and because Alston “was the only one who asked for [available] options. All persons paid the full amount [$250] for their full-page ads.”
“It’s impossible for a black-and-white ad to cost the same as a color one,” says former NAACP state president Kelly Alexander Jr. Alexander ran the state chapter for 12 years. “At least, that’s normally how it works.”
This inconsistency, combined with the fact that White’s letter still lacked payment instructions and was sent well after the Nov. 25 deadline, caused Gatewood to disregard it and label White’s explanation as “bogus.” He would be suspended a month and a half later.
“In this case, a hearing was not necessary because the suspension came as a result of his failure to follow through on our October decision,” says Eric Lee Bryant, the assistant director of NAACP national field operations. The process, continues Bryant, was “as fair as it could be. Ms. Coleman recused herself at all levels. I’m sorry that Mr. Gatewood feels the ad situation was handled unfairly, but he agreed to pay the price of the ad, and his failure to do so caused the board to take the additional step of barring him from office until the debt was settled.”
Regarding the fact that White’s post-deadline letter technically didn’t comply with the decision either, Bryant suggests Gatewood “can still pursue that matter with us if he wants to.”
Gatewood says he may choose to do so, but that won’t change the troubling dynamics surrounding his suspension.
“Even though the NAACP has a rich tradition of protest and activity, the local chapters that engage in the most activity and protest the loudest are the ones being scrutinized,” he says, noting that the Durham chapter, on more than one occasion, has gone to Raleigh to protest issues of injustice while the state and Raleigh chapters remained silent. “I have never seen some of my colleagues fight racist politicians, police chiefs and others who help keep black people undereducated and overincarcerated with the same vigor, determination and energy they have used in fighting me.”
Gatewood stops short of saying Coleman or anyone else, outside of the host committee, pushed for his suspension. “I just think the facts should be known.”
But Coleman feels Gatewood is trying to distort the facts while sidestepping the payment issue.
“When people do things that they can’t defend, they try to find all kinds of excuses to justify their actions,” says Coleman, characterizing the board’s decision to discipline the minister as “clear-cut. I will not let Gatewood confuse one issue with another. It’s an attack on a person’s integrity to imply they can’t function honestly in more than one capacity.”
While not addressing the suspension or its associated fallout directly, Alexander suggests such situations are often anything but clear.
“Any organization that permits political appointees and elected officials to hold office within it will find it difficult separating its policies from the political agendas and constituencies these individuals represent,” says Alexander.
“Things can get very murky,” the former president continues. “And the more murky it gets, the more criticism it draws.”