GRAND FORKS, N.D. — As the NAACP marks its 100th anniversary this year, the nation’s oldest, largest and most widely recognized civil rights organization has extended its presence into a final frontier: North Dakota.
A chapter with more than 100 members, including several from northwestern Minnesota, has been chartered in Grand Forks, the first NAACP outpost in one of the nation’s most homogenous states: 91.6 percent white in 2007, according to the U.S. Census, and just 1 percent black. The NAACP’s arrival in North Dakota leaves just Vermont without a chapter.
In a state where diversity has more often meant intermarriage between Norwegians and Swedes, there are areas where it’s not so unusual to see people of color.
In Grand Forks and to the west in Minot, large Air Force bases have drawn numbers of black military people to North Dakota for decades, and some have stayed after retirement. American Indians account for 5.4 percent of the state’s population, Hispanics nearly 2 percent, and in recent years a growing number of refugees from Bhutan, Burundi, Iraq and other countries have been resettled in Grand Forks and other cities. Northwestern Minnesota has seen an influx of people from Laos.
Open to everyone
Besides, say organizers, their new chapter is open to all.
“We have no barriers, no restrictions,” said the Rev. Ronald Cooper, a retired airman who now ministers at a church just outside Grand Forks Air Force Base.
“Our biggest obstacle sometimes is the name — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It’s an old term that would be startling if used in another context, but it is part of history.
“People assume it’s only for African-Americans, but if you understand the history of the organization you know that we are open to all. I tell people, ‘Don’t focus on the name, but on the purpose we hope to establish and what our goals are.’ “
The NAACP was formed in 1909 partly in response to the continuing practice of lynching and a race riot the previous year in Springfield, Ill., the birthplace of President Abraham Lincoln.
Descendants of abolitionists and other white liberals met with leading African-Americans, including W.E.B. Du Bois, and signed a call for racial justice. Since then, the grass-roots organization has used protest, mass marches, legal actions and other nonviolent means to change practices and policies throughout the country.
Hot, flat, friendly
Cooper, 48, retired from the Air Force in 2005 after 24 years. Raised in Savannah, Ga., he had traveled the world before coming to the Grand Forks base in 1998. In his last years with the Air Force, he earned a master’s degree in computer administration.
“My journey into the ministry has been occurring my entire life,” he said.
He arrived in Grand Forks on a blistering day in July.
“It was hot — and awfully flat,” he said. “That was my first impression. But after getting to know people, I thought it was a quaint place, quite different from any place I had been before. And I thought the people here were extremely nice.
“I wasn’t raised to be that observant of differences in races. I was raised to appreciate the character of a person and how they carried themselves and treated others. Coming here, it didn’t trouble me or even occur to me that I should feel out of place, or that I didn’t belong.”
Region not immune from problems
With another Air Force veteran-turned-local minister, the Rev. Henry Passmore, Cooper saw his new community becoming increasingly diverse — by local standards, anyway. And while the region had been largely on the sidelines during past civil rights struggles, it was not immune from problems of racial discrimination, injustice and unrest.
“We felt there was a need for representation for all people,” Cooper said. “When (Passmore) approached me, he didn’t come with radical ideals or statements about acts of discrimination. But for the community to grow the right way, he felt — and I agreed — that it was important that people feel they’re being treated equally and are a part of the community. It’s important for them to know they have someone who will speak up for them.”
Cooper, who with his wife raised three children in Grand Forks, said he believes the area will become increasingly diverse.
“There are opportunities here,” he said. “As the nation as a whole struggles under the current economic situation, people are realizing that this area of the country still offers tremendous opportunities.
“If you do visit and you meet the people, it may influence you to stay. You may feel you’ve found a place where you can excel. There are strong values here, a strong work ethic.”
The chapter’s plans
Cooper said he sees the new NAACP chapter engaging primarily in “educating people in diversity, helping our civic leaders, our state and local officials, learn to embrace the entire community as diverse as it’s becoming.”
He has plans for a youth group and for reaching out to college students in the region, and he said he wants to encourage people to “learn about our differences but also about how we are very much alike, all of us. We all have similar dreams and goals.”
News of the chapter’s formation aroused “considerable interest throughout the community,” Cooper said. “Our group has grown very diverse itself, with members of all ethnic backgrounds. We’re very proud of that.”