African Civil Rights Activist Strives to Repair NAACP

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"When I first met him and he was coming to branch meetings, I think people were wondering, 'Why is he doing this?' " said Carol Antoniewicz, the branch's assistant secretary. "I think it was a kind of prejudice against foreigners. But anybody who gets to meet him has to be impressed with what presence and integrity he has."

Djoken brings a kind of infectious optimism to the job. He says political cynicism has made race such a loaded issue for Americans.

He counts Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi as his heroes, and he reads Plato and Aristotle, he said during a recent interview at an Ethiopian restaurant in Frederick.

He said that he has no political ambitions and that the NAACP will not endorse a candidate in the city's upcoming mayoral election.

His philosophy is best expressed in one of the poems he wrote while he was in Africa:

If we stop begging,

Crying and humiliating ourselves,

We could restore Africa's dignity.

You call me utopian, idealist?

Yes, I might be one .

He took his idealism to the street one day last week when he met with the city's police chief, Col. Kim C. Dine. One of the main items on Djoken's agenda is to repair relations with police and encourage more minority hires at the agency, which has never met its goals for the hiring of black officers.

Dine -- a former D.C. police officer -- said he enthusiastically supported the effort and would invite NAACP members to come with police officers to job fairs and send police officers to job fairs aimed at the black community.

"One of my obvious goals was to restore or build on the communications and trust between our agency and the NAACP," Dine said.

Standing next to Dine, Djoken had a message for the room full of police officers, most of them white, at a weekly command staff meeting: "I trust him," Djoken said of Dine. "If I call him, I know he is going to do something about it."

A few minutes earlier, outside the police station, Djoken worked on another goal -- this one for the grass-roots support the NAACP will need to swell its ranks.

He ran into Lakia Thompson, who said she faced eviction from public housing because authorities said she had not performed the community service she was required to do. Though he was a few minutes late for his meeting with Dine, Djoken sat down on an outdoor bench and spoke quietly with her.

She showed him a letter from authorities that asserted that she had, in fact, done the community service.

"The goal here is to have the problem solved," he said, as he showed her an NAACP complaint form and told her how to fill it out. She smiled at him.

"My grandma, she told me never to give up," Thompson said.

"Never give up," Djoken said, nodding vigorously. "Never give up."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company