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Boston NAACP marks its centennial

MICHAEL A. CURRY 'Part of this whole effort is to raise consciousness around the vestiges of racism and discrimination.' MICHAEL A. CURRY
"Part of this whole effort is to raise consciousness around the vestiges of racism and discrimination."
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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Three decades have passed since the Boston NAACP office was firebombed during the height of the city’s busing battle. Even further back is the group’s successful fight to end segregation in the city’s college dormitories in the 1940s. More distant still is the campaign, in 1913, that allowed black boys to swim in Boston’s YMCA pools.

Now, Massachusetts has its first black governor and the nation its first African-American president. But the work of the Boston NAACP goes on.

Witness last November, when Cure Lounge in the Theater District, citing security concerns, abruptly closed and asked patrons to leave after a group of black Harvard and Yale students and alumni showed up for a party. The club ended up paying a fine, issuing a public apology, and sending its staff to antidiscrimination training.

Or last winter, when a group of friends went to Peggy O’Neil’s Pub and Grille in Dorchester for a birthday celebration. The guest of honor, who was white, was allowed inside, but her friends, who were African-American, Hispanic, and Cape Verdean, were turned away. The pub, which has denied wrongdoing, is being sued for civil rights violations by the attorney general’s office.

As the Boston NAACP celebrated its centennial at the Westin Copley Place last night, its leaders reflected on how far the city has come, and how far it has to go, in achieving equality in a region with a sometimes tortured history of racial discrimination.

“Some people say we’re in postracial America, because we have Obama and Deval,’’ said Michael A. Curry, a lawyer who was elected president of the Boston NAACP, the oldest branch of the venerable civil rights organization, last November. “Those are testaments to how far we have come, and that’s something we should be very proud of. But the reality is we have not come far enough.’’

Curry pointed to high unemployment rates, violence, and educational disparities in Boston’s black communities as examples of the work that remains, decades after the city’s busing crisis made it a national symbol of racial strife.

“If we can get people on the same page, or at least a critical mass of us, to realize that the data - the facts - reveal there’s more work to do across every area of concern to us, then we can do it together,’’ Curry said in a phone interview. “Part of this whole effort is to raise consciousness around the vestiges of racism and discrimination in our attitudes and institutions.’’

The Boston NAACP is also celebrating its own renaissance after a period in which it lost membership, financing, and clout.

Founded in 1911 by Moorfield Storey, a white lawyer and Roxbury native, its first officers included Francis J. Garrison, the youngest son of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and Butler Wilson, a prominent black lawyer.

For decades, the group counted about 1,000 members and was a forceful presence, integrating the waitstaff at Meadows Restaurant in Framingham in 1953, recruiting black officers for the Boston Police Department in the 1970s, and combating HIV and AIDS in recent years.

But membership dwindled to 200 by March of last year, Curry said, blaming a lack of focus on messaging and recruitment. Now, the group has more than 1,200 members, new corporate sponsors, and is building a new headquarters in Roxbury, after an aggressive campaign to overhaul its fusty image and revive interest among young people.

“They’ve had some major challenges, and that’s why I’m pleased that, under the leadership of Michael Curry, they’re working aggressively to put their branch back on solid financial footing,’’ said Roslyn M. Brock, a Maryland health care executive who is chairwoman of the national NAACP board. “They’re moving in the right direction.’’

Last night, more than 700 people were expected to attend the celebration at the Westin, with dinner, live music, and Latin dancing. But there was a sense of worry tempering the festivities. President Obama, who addressed the national NAACP convention in 2009, is facing daunting prospects for reelection.

And Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, was to speak to the gathering last night about the grim choices he is facing as a member of Congress’ new deficit-reduction panel.

The Boston NAACP is also monitoring the state’s redistricting process, hoping to avoid a repeat of the debacle a decade ago when lawmakers approved legislative maps that illegally diluted the voting power of Boston’s minorities.

“People, I think, are fearful of what the future holds,’’ Brock said. But “Boston is a very resilient community and I think there are a lot of fair-minded people who are willing to work.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.