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Memorable Moments: “NAACP launches drive for 5,000 new members”
By Gwendolyn Reese
The headline “NAACP launches drive for 5,000 new members”appeared in the St. Petersburg Times “Local” and “National Negro News” on Aug. 8, 1953, is a testimony to the inequalities and atrocities endured by black people and the important role played by the NAACP in our community.
The campaign to recruit 5,000 new members was held at Campbell Park. The main speaker was Robert W. Saunders, a law student at University of Detroit and Field Director of the NAACP. Saunders was asked by Walter White, then executive director of the NAACP, to return to Florida and replace Harry T. Moore as Florida’s field director. A post he held from 1952-1966.
Saunders worked closely with Thurgood Marshall to free two black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Groveland, Fla. In his speech he emphasized the need for new members by listing several legal cases of the day including two local cases, one occurring at St. Petersburg Municipal Pier and one concerning practices of segregation in local courts. “Negroes were banned from the courtroom during trials of white offenders and cases involving Negroes are held after all white trials have been handled.” Saunders said the NAACP was preparing to take action in both cases.
Saunders also cited Moore and Noah W. Griffin in his speech. Moore started the Brevard County NAACP in 1934. He also organized the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and soon became its unpaid executive secretary. Moore investigated and compiled reports on lynching and police brutality until the bombing of his home on Christmas Day 1951. He died on the way to the hospital and his wife, Harriette, died nine days later.
Noah W. Griffin, a principal of Gibbs High School, successfully won a court battle in the state of Florida in a fight to equalize the pay of black teachers to that of white teachers. In that fight, he was represented by a young Thurgood Marshall, later to become the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Griffin was fired because of his NAACP activities.
Saunders ended his address by “urging every Negro citizen to join forces with the NAACP.” He stated that most of the money needed must come from membership drives. The campaign was boosted by Mrs. F.A. Ponder, the Rev. L.A. Latimore, the Rev. Enoch D. Davis, Richard Smith Sr., Willie Drayton, W.R. Johnson Jr., and Mrs. Elizabeth Mainor.
In 2015, the new and expanded Robert W. Saunders, Sr. Public Library opened in Tampa. The $7 million, two-story library is a historical archive for the once thriving black Central Avenue that was home to black-owned businesses, school and the Harlem Branch Library, which served as a gathering place for community issues during pre-integration days.