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Local NAACP branch looking toward future with new leader

February 11, 2009, Palm Beach Post, Local Naacp branch looking toward future with new leader, by Kathleen Chapman.

WEST PALM BEACH — When Lia Gaines marks the 100th birthday of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People today, she is also celebrating her own family's history.

Her great-great-aunt, Theresa Lang, kept minutes for the Key West branch in its earliest years, and passed down stories about writer and activist James Weldon Johnson attending one of their meetings.

Her mother, Lillian Gaines, 75, is also a lifelong member and helped to integrate restaurants and swimming pools in Palm Beach County during the 1950s and 1960s. Her father, Gartrell Gaines, was a doctor and avid golfer who helped open the local courses to black residents, showing up to play until he was no longer turned away.

"I was a member for all of my life, and my husband was too," Lillian Gaines said. "It was something that my family was always very proud of."

Lia Gaines, 51, was elected president of the West Palm Beach chapter of the organization in November and is tasked with attracting a new generation to serve the NAACP.

One hundred years after its founding, the organization is at a crossroads. The NAACP's new president and CEO, Benjamin Todd Jealous, is shifting the mission from civil rights to human rights - working to overcome lingering disparities in quality education, health care and economic opportunity.

In many ways, the fortunes of the local NAACP branch have followed the history of the national group. Activism and energy peaked during the civil rights era, when the local branch was led by Louise Elizabeth "L.E." Buie. She joined the local branch in 1937 and then fought tirelessly for decades to bring down segregated schools, persuade local governments to hire blacks and force hospitals to treat black patients.

Buie stepped down in the late 1980s, and the local branch had several different leaders during the 1990s. The national organization also struggled to find its way as the civil rights era wound down, with a $4 million deficit in the early 1990s that left it without the money to pay bills or severance for laid-off employees.

Today, the national organization has a $21 million annual budget and 85 full-time workers. There are 525,000 members and 225,000 donors. The NAACP's membership peaked at 625,000 paid members in 1964.

Former County Commissioner Maude Ford Lee, who was the West Palm Beach branch president from 2002 to 2008, said the organization doesn't reveal local membership numbers. But about 400 people attended the major fund-raising event last fall, she said.

The NAACP has made it a priority to stay relevant to students who don't remember its landmark 1954 victory in Brown vs. Board of Education, but are still dropping out of school and going to jail at rates higher than their white counterparts.

For Lia Gaines, focusing on youth is equally important at the local level. The West Palm Beach branch has no youth council, and Gaines said it will be one of her priorities to get one started.

Gaines is a volunteer with a full-time job and no staff. But still, she said, there is much to be done. The NAACP is concerned about the large number of behavior problems at school that are handled by law enforcement, Gaines said, and will continue to push the district to use alternatives to suspension, expulsion and arrest.

Gaines also plans to work with local governments to make sure that black businesses get an equitable share of the federal bailout money.

The disproportionate number of subprime mortgages that went to black and Latino residents shows how poor economic conditions are hitting those communities the hardest, she said.

Looking ahead, Gaines said that her nieces and nephews have joined the organization and are ready to continue the family tradition.

"I think that the NAACP will keep the struggle going," Gaines said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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