By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
A troubling chain-of-events pushed Norfolk NAACP members to choose the theme for this year’s Freedom Fund Luncheon: Pursuing Liberty in the Face of Injustice.
Whether it was ongoing complaints about police brutality, racial injustice, untreated mental illnesses or educational disparities, the common thread that snaked through the fabric of many lives this year was obvious across the nation: Blacks are being treated unfairly. To untangle the thread, the Norfolk NAACP will hold its annual luncheon on Oct. 3 at noon in The Murray Center. The keynote speaker will be Denise Sterling Gallop, assistant director of the Norfolk Department of Human Services.
“We came up with this year’s theme by looking at our chronological calendar and noticing what we had actually done in the past 12 month,” said Norfolk NAACP President Joe Dillard.
“People should buy a ticket and come out because the dependency of our people’s survival is solely on our people,” Dillard added. “Whether it is police killings, discrimination, or economic development – it depends on us. And I ask that you support us. I only want what’s best for us and our community.”
It’s not idle talk. Dillard said he works about 25-40 hours a week for the NAACP.
Dillard is the youngest person to hold the local presidency at age 26,
“For example, we investigated the shooting death of David Latham, a 35-year-old man with mental illness,” Dillard said. “It was troubling.”
According to a News Channel 3 report, “The incident happened on June 6, 2014 in the 400 block of W. 30th Street. Police were originally called out to the scene after someone told them Latham pulled a knife on his brother. Someone else called and said Latham pulled a knife on another sibling.”
“When they arrived on the scene, police say they encountered Latham, who was still armed with a knife and blocking the doorway to the home,” News Channel 3 continued. “Police say he refused to drop the knife and that’s when he was shot.”
“Latham’s family filed a wrongful death claim and lawsuit shortly after the incident,” according to News Channel 3. “This shooting was the second one in which an officer killed a suspect.”
Of the indictment that followed the shooting, the Huffington Post reported on June 11, 2015, “A special grand jury has indicted a Norfolk police officer for voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a mentally ill man.”
“The grand jury returned its indictment charging Michael Carlton Edington Jr. in the 2014 death of 35-year-old David Latham,” the Huffington Post continued. “Latham’s mother, Audrey Latham, has said that her son had schizophrenia and had recently stopped taking his medication.”
Of that highly publicized shooting, Dillard said, “We believe it was injustice.”
Again, it is not trivial talk. Dillard has not only volunteered about 40 hours a week since he assumed the presidency in October 2013, but also, for the past two years he has worked as a government affairs liaison for Hampton Roads Transit. And he is completing his master’s degree in urban affairs at Norfolk State University.
And this is where the theme for the annual luncheon comes in once again. Dillard pointed to more troubling NAACP investigations this year.
“The next case we investigated was the Norfolk Public Schools teacher, who posted photographs of prom dates who were multi-racial couples,” Dillard said. “The teacher called the photograph, ‘A white father’s worst nightmare.’ And the NAACP called for sensitivity training in the public school system.”
Meanwhile, Dillard pointed to other incidents that made headlines such as the controversial decision to return $1.6 million in Title I funds back to the federal government. Of that decision, WAVY News noted in a Feb. 11, 2015 report, “Those funds had an expiration date, and the school system simply didn’t use it in time.”
Dillard said of that disturbing situation, “We labeled it as an injustice. Later, on social media, I saw on Instagram where a girl was bitten by a police dog. She was on the ground, pinned to the ground by other officers, and not resisting when the dog was released on her.”
Of that incident, The Virginian-Pilot noted in a Jan. 29, 2015 report, “A Norfolk State University student was attacked and bitten by a police dog early Sunday morning as officers held her down and attempted to handcuff her, according to her father, two friends who were with her at the time and an official with the Norfolk branch of the NAACP.”
“The K-9 bit her several times in the leg, causing major damage to the leg,” The Virginian-Pilot added. She required 43 stitches and will need plastic surgery for a gaping wound in her leg that has not been closed.
Dillard said, “These are some of the highlights of what we have been doing this past year.”
“I hope we can raise at least $10,000 from the annual luncheon,” Dillard said. “Usually we only raise $5,000. But $2000 of that amount automatically goes to the state while $1,000 to $1,500 goes to pay national dues.”
“We use the funds from the annual luncheon to pay the phone bill, to keep the lights on,” he said. “Rarely do we have large donations but we need them. An extra $5000 a year would help us do more. For example, we had a restoration rights seminar last summer. It was free but we need more money to do things like that. We need funds to hold random events like breakfasts that feature experts, and other events.”
“Ticket sales for the luncheon, which is our major fundraiser for the year, are a little slow right now,” Dillard said. “But I am hopeful. Last year, we sold out. We sold 388 tickets last year. In reality, only about $3 from our annual membership fee of $30 goes to the Norfolk NAACP.”
“We are hesitant of who we ask for help because we are concerned about a conflict of interest,” he said. “Our funds have to come from the people.”
Despite the number of worrisome investigations the NAACP has conducted this year, Dillard pointed to the top three lessons he learned.
“No. 1, I have learned to think strategically and to not immediately comment—to get to the bottom of an issue before I comment,” he said. “No. 2, I have learned you are only as strong as your supporters. While I may privately question my own leadership style, I have had people roll down their car windows and yell, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’ That has given me strength and helped. Many are supportive.
“No. 3, I learned the power is in the people,” Dillard said. “I don’t want to be redundant but I mean it does not matter what your opponents say. As long as I lead with my heart it will save me from having a lot of gray hairs.”
To purchase tickets to the luncheon that cost $45 each, to volunteer, or to donate to the NAACP, please phone (757) 461-3577.