On the same night the Oklahoma City Thunder eliminated the Los Angeles Clippers from the NBA playoffs at Staples Center, a few blocks away the local chapter of the NAACP held its annual dinner. Clippers owner Donald Sterling attended neither event – banned from the game by the NBA and disinvited as a guest of honor from the dinner at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.
At Thursday’s dinner, newly installed NAACP LA Chapter President Minnie Hadley-Hempstead said the group should not be judged for its initial decision to present Sterling with a lifetime achievement award. That decision was made before the now infamous tape recording surfaced of Sterling saying he preferred African Americans not attend Clippers games.
“One incident in 100 years doesn’t change anything,” Hadley-Hempstead said as the group celebrated its centennial. “We’re going to get up, band together and do what we need to do now.”
She was forced into the presidency from her position as first vice president after Leon Jenkins stepped down amid the furor over Sterling’s award. “I was thinking our president was young and that was not going to happen,” a somewhat dismayed Hadley-Hempstead said. “But I’m ready.”
“We walk shoulder to shoulder with you and this chapter,” said the Reverend Al Sharpton, who received a “Person of the Year” award. “Sterling may be rich but he’s not as rich as the history of this organization,” the New York based civil rights activist and MSNBC TV host told the audience of about 350 people.
The group also presented a “Person of the Year” award to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who compared Sterling’s comments with this week’s firebombing of black families’ homes in the Ramona Gardens Housing Project in Boyle Heights. Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime.
“No matter who commits acts of racism – whether it’s a billionaire or somebody in our poorest neighborhoods – we have to speak out against it,” Garcetti said.
Some at the dinner said taking big money from wealthy people presents problems for the NAACP – and any other non-profit organization. Greater support from the community would help alleviate a reliance on large donors.
“The community should be faithful to us and fund us so that we don’t have to go to the large people like Sterling with a questionable past,” said Pastor William D. Smart Jr., who leads the L.A. chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
But he acknowledged community support has faded as the SCLC, NAACP and other old-line black civil rights groups have struggled to redefine themselves. The groups should develop an economic agenda, something Martin Luther King Jr. began to do later in his life, Smart said.
“We never really have fulfilled that,” he said. Smart added his group is focusing more on economic issues lately.
LA City Council President Herb Wesson called Sterling’s comments a “teaching moment.”
"People have to realize that Mr. Sterling is not the only one with racist tendencies,” Wesson said. “We need to take advantage of moments likes these when the whole world is watching.”
Not everyone focused on denouncing Sterling.
“I sort of put myself in his shoes,” said Yeshiva Davis, a therapist and member of a group called Legacy Ladies that helps disadvantaged families.
After feeling angry and hurt, she noted Sterling is a man in his eighties who grew up in a different era. “So he is functioning from that point of view. And it takes a long time to change,” she said. “I decided I would have some empathy for him.”
She said she’s comfortable with how the NAACP has handled the Sterling matter. “Organizations make missteps. Its time to move on.”
Davis also has taken some action. In response to Sterling’s suggestion that Jewish people donate more to the needy than African Americans, she and her friends have begun raising money on a Facebook page. They haven’t decided on the recipients. They’ve collected $600 in three days.
“It feels good to get people together around a positive cause,” she said.