palm-beach-naacp_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

Lia Gaines gets highly agitated when people ask if the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is still relevant today.

Gaines, 53, president of the West Palm Beach branch of the NAACP since November 2008, says just looking around will show the relevancy of the civil rights organization.

“Do we live in a society with equality and equity for all, one in which there is no racial discrimination or economic exploitation? If you answer yes, then you believe that the NAACP is irrelevant. But if you answer no, then you believe there is no such thing as a ‘post-racial’ America, unless you are just stating that persons of all races have entered into many of the highest fields of endeavor. But that certainly does not mean that America is ‘post racial,’” she said.

Gaines, a lawyer, is executive director of the Center for Enterprise Opportunity which provides financing and business development services for small businesses. Those who want to shut down the civil and human rights movement feel threatened by the “real progress” of black leadership at the highest levels, she said.

“NAACP folks litigated, spoke out, protested, went to jail, were beaten bloody and even killed to force this progress to get where we are today,” Gaines noted. “We must not stop today in forging the progress of human rights because we made some progress. The NAACP should be as relevant as inequality, discrimination and injustice are real and I think that will be for quite some time.”

Maude Ford Lee, a pioneer and trailblazer in Palm Beach County, who served as president of the branch from 2002 to 2008, shares that view. Lee, the first African-American Palm Beach county commissioner, serving from 1990 to 2000, says there is even more of a need today for the NAACP.

“We’re still getting many, many calls for employment discrimination,” said Lee, a member of the branch’s executive committee.  Asked whether Barack Obama’s election as president has made a difference, she replied, “We’re also proud in that regard but it seems we have even more racism now that we have President Obama in office. Our work has definitely not decreased. I see an increase.”

Gaines said the NAACP has shifted its focus in recent times to better tackle the issues of today. In running the West Palm Beach branch, she said, she is taking direction from the national leadership, with the national president and CEO, Benjamin Todd Jealous, re-defining the mission of the group from a focus on civil rights to human rights.

The organization is working towards overcoming lingering disparities in quality education, employment, health care, and economic opportunity. Gaines believes those initiatives are important, particularly education.

On Dec. 11, the branch held its annual Freedom Fund Breakfast at the Crowne Plaza hotel in West Palm Beach on the theme “Education… The New Civil Rights Frontier.” The keynote speaker was Dr. Debra Robinson, who, until the November election, was the lone African-American Palm Beach County School Board member. She has since been joined by Marcia Andrews, a popular activist and former educator.

“Education is the civil rights issue of all time,” Robinson told the breakfast audience. “There is not a teacher who can get a child to learn if the child is shutting down. But the best teachers know how to open them up. Why don’t we teach the child? We cram tests down their throats. Where are the seasoned teachers today?  Let us not be confused and think that black children can’t learn.”

Gaines said nationally and locally the NAACP is sounding an alarm over the education of African-American children.

“It is way past time for the vast majority of African Americans and others who consider themselves to be progressive to speak out and take direct action to ensure that all children get the best possible quality education,” Gaines said. “Why? Because if we do not place the highest priority on the education of African-American children, then African-American people will continue to spiral down into greater social and economic hardship and subjugation.”

Gaines said the branch has focused on creating solutions to critical resource disparities, de facto racial segregation, and biased school discipline policies that have lifetime repercussions and consequences for students of color. 

The issue of low graduation rates of African-American males is both a national initiative and a local one for the group, she said. The branch is heavily involved with the African American Male Task Force, recently set up by Palm Beach School Superintendent Art Johnson.

Gaines said the branch has also focused on employment discrimination and civil liberties under her leadership. It was recently involved in mediation in two long-standing public sector employment discrimination cases.

“I was successful at getting the city of West Palm Beach to do an investigation which uncovered an employee using city computers to create and circulate a racially hostile animation of a black employee, who is suing the city of West Palm Beach,” she said.

“[The] NAACP really doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing the major issues of the branch.  More often than not, the issues basically pick and choose us,” Gaines said.

Daphne Taylor may be reached at

CAROL PORTER/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES. CIVIL RIGHTS CHAMPIONS: Key persons at the West Palm Beach branch of the NAACP’s Freedom Fund Breakfast held Saturday at the Crowne Plaza in West Palm Beach included, from left, NAACP President Lia Gaines, featured speaker Dr. Debra Robinson and former branch president Maude Ford Lee.