Josie Bass, former president of the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP, resigned that office in 1981. An article Jan. 5 incorrectly said she had been ousted by the national organization.
Eugene L. King was preparing to go to work one summer morning in 1954 when he heard disturbing news on the radio. The night before, someone had burned a cross on the front lawn of his mother's house in Beltsville.
He immediately called her, and Hester V. King was calm. "She had no fear . . . . Fear never entered her mind," her son recently recalled.
That incident was the only threat Eugene King remembers against his mother. But she was the focus for more than 20 years of the black struggle for equal rights in Prince George's County in her work as the founder and backbone of the county's chapter of the NAACP. Until her death nearly 25 years ago, she saw the civil rights organization, which just celebrated its 50th year of operation in the county, through difficult years.
Yet despite the improvements for blacks in the county, many of which were the product of work by the local NAACP, the organization in recent years has been beset by internal struggles, apathy and criticism from within the black community.
When Hester King died in 1962, the county's schools were still largely segregated, housing for the county's black residents was generally limited to a few areas near the District boundary and signs warning "whites only" still hung on businesses in parts of the county.
"I wish she could have lived to see all of the changes in Prince George's County," said King, who lives in Baltimore.
Many of those changes occurred because of pressures from the NAACP. The county's schools are being desegregated, thanks largely to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP in 1972. Blacks account for more than 50 percent of its population. The police department, once the bane of the county's black residents, changed its policy to make it easier for people to file brutality complaints because of a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, and it has increased the number of minority officers on the force.
Cora Rice, first vice president of the Prince George's NAACP, said such a list of accomplishments could go on and on. "We have been far-reaching," said Rice, who served as the organization's president from 1967 to 1974. "But there are a lot of problems still here that I know would disturb Hester King."
Among those problems, the NAACP's current leadership lists too few black elected officials, too many blacks in low-paying jobs in county government and, recently, a rising number of police brutality complaints.
"Things are more subtle now," said Richard (Steve) Brown, the first person to serve as executive secretary of the county NAACP. "But racism and discrimination still exist. Unfortunately, there's still a need for us to be around, and probably will be for the next 50 years."
Other, internal problems exist for the local NAACP. For most of its first 50 years, the civil rights organization enjoyed widespread support among blacks on most issues throughout the county. Its paid membership rolls were long, its leadership steady. But in recent years, the NAACP has been subject to more criticism from the county's black residents. Paid membership has been topsy-turvy, at one point, according to a former president, dropping to less than 10 persons. Two successive presidents were forced out of office by the national NAACP because of management problems.
Current and former members of the organization said that internal dissension and a failure on the part of its leadership to change with the county's black population have made the Prince George's NAACP less effective than it could be.
"They need a different approach to attract new membership," said former Maryland state senator Tommie Broadwater Jr., a lifetime member of the NAACP. "It's going to take a lot more aggressiveness and a little different style to promote the NAACP in the county. They are still fighting in that old-time style."
Much of the criticism comes from residents in the southern part of Prince George's, who at one point in the mid-1970s felt so isolated from the NAACP's leadership that they petitioned the national office for permission to start their own chapter. The effort was unsuccessful.
Now the south part of the county is home base for many black residents who object to the NAACP's advocacy of busing schoolchildren to integrate county schools. James Garrett, who lives in Fort Washington, was among a group that last year formed the Black Coalition Against Unnecessary Busing to show that not all of the county's black residents were in agreement with the NAACP.
Garrett said he supports the NAACP on other issues, including its battles with the county police department. "But they are still trying forced integration when that is no longer feasible," he said. "I don't think they've recognized the large number of blacks who now live in the county."
The county's black population has changed dramatically over the years. It is a larger population, more affluent and better educated. In 1970, according to the Maryland State Data Center, 91,507 black persons lived in Prince George's; 4,919 of them had college degrees; their per capita income was $3,742. By 1980, the county's black population had more than doubled to 247,860; more than 50,000 had college degrees and another 19,000 had advanced college degrees; their per capita income was $7,529.
Clem Martin, the current president of the Prince George's NAACP, is aware of the changes in the county's black population and the criticisms about the organization's leadership and its stance on court-ordered busing. He said that many of those who criticize the NAACP's position on school busing live in well-integrated parts of the county, where children can attend integrated neighborhood schools.
"But some of us don't live in a situation where there is integration," Martin said. "Too many of us are not part of the county's affluence."
"We should have about 10,000 members," Martin said. "We don't have near that."
The NAACP, as a rule, does not release membership figures. Brown, the chapter's executive secretary, said that after years of steady decline, membership is up in the past five years to several thousand. He attributed the decline of the past to "many blacks who simply thought they had made it and did not need to get involved."
William Martin, who is not related to Clem Martin and who was elected president in 1979, said that the national office told him then that in 1977 and 1978 the chapter had only eight or nine paid members. "I thought that was pretty low," William Martin said, "but there was no way to check it because the chapter's records were bad."
Grabbing the newer county residents' attention will not be easy, the organization's officials acknowledge. The county now has several black organizations, such as the Rainbow Coalition, the Southern County Coalition on Black Affairs, the Black Democratic Council and the Black Caucus, that are vying for residents' energies.
And many of the relatively new black residents in the county are concerned with their home mortgages and worrying about financing their children's education, things that for years were out of the reach of many black people.
"In the days when those kinds of things were not possible, you didn't have to worry about getting an individual's attention," said Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political scientist and a 15-year resident of Prince George's. "It's very, very difficult for an organization to get people's attention with civil rights issues. When a dynamic personality comes along with an issue that taps race consciousness at a higher level, they respond to that. The NAACP is not raising these issues nationally or locally."
The challenge to restore order to the chapter fell on Clem Martin, who succeeded the two presidents -- William Martin and then Josie Bass -- who were ousted by the national office. People outside and within the organization said Clem Martin has done a good job in that respect. He has not yet indicated whether he will seek a second full term this year.
He continues working and says that the chapter's next "big project" will involve police brutality complaints and promotions in the police department. His first task is to find someone to lead the chapter's police committee.
"You don't get a dime for working with us," Martin said, "and it takes up so much of your time. A lot of black people just don't have the time because they're too busy trying to survive."