African Civil Rights Activist Strives to Repair NAACP
Sunday, July 31, 2005
Guy Djoken knew it was time to leave Cameroon when his friends started disappearing.
They had marched in the streets of Douala, Cameroon's financial capital, to protest the dictatorial government of President Paul Biya. Police threats forced the lucky ones into exile. The others were thrown in jail or simply vanished.
Djoken's role in the opposition was small: He was a poet, not a politician. But he knew that if he stayed in his homeland, he could be the next to disappear.
So he began a journey from western Africa that landed him here, in mostly white, mostly rural Frederick County, where he is continuing his fight for civil rights by trying to restore the tarnished reputation of the local branch of the NAACP.
The NAACP, which long has defended African Americans and other minorities against oppression, has struggled at times after its successes in the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s.
In Frederick, the organization is fighting to stop a decline in membership and reassert its relevance to the city's African Americans, who represent 14.7 percent of the city's population of 53,000 but remain virtually absent in government.
The leader of this effort is Djoken, a 38-year-old African who came to the United States seven years ago. Djoken (pronounced JO-ken) assumed the presidency of the Frederick County NAACP last year, after Denise A. West, his predecessor, was charged with writing checks to family members from the organization's accounts.
West pleaded guilty in March to one count of felony theft. Last month, the Frederick County Circuit Court sentenced West to four years of supervised probation and ordered her to repay the $9,200 she had stolen.
Before West, there was Charlene Edmonds, who had several public clashes with the city government, including an incident in which Police Chief Regis R. Raffensberger allegedly ordered surveillance of Edmonds's home. Raffensberger resigned and later was cleared of criminal wrongdoing. Edmonds left her post in 2002.
"They betrayed the trust put in them," Djoken said in his French-accented English. "When I joined, my goal was to renew the trust."
Under the barrage of scandal and conflict, the branch's membership plummeted from a high of 400 people to between 100 and 150, Djoken said.
When he joined, members considered it a little strange to have an immigrant and civil rights crusader from Africa in their midst, though Frederick has a fairly large African community.