I have heard it said about the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP that it is the most ethnically mixed chapter in the entire country and indeed, since its inception 50 years ago its sense of mission has been equally appealing to both black and white Americans.
The founding members, with quiet dignity and complete commitment, undertook to create an organization within the Island community that would be dedicated to the fight for justice and for an inclusive America. It was prompted by the tragic events unfolding during the civil rights struggle in the south and the call to action by President Kennedy in 1963 when he spoke on national television about the decision of the University of Mississippi to bar the entrance of James Meredith. In doing so, he addressed the national inequities that extended far beyond Mississippi, decrying the racism that limited opportunity and created ghettoes in the north as well as the south. In June of that year, the president called for all Americans to address those inequities, famously stating: “When Americans are asked to go to Viet Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only.” In November that year the president was killed by an assassin. And a brave group of Vineyarders took up his challenge to create the truly free society he had envisaged.
The founders were a diverse group and included the dynamic Kivi Kaplan, the Vineyard Five, women who traveled from the Island to North Carolina to help register voters. One of them, Nancy Whiting, observed in 2007 that the police that they encountered while helping to protest a segregated Sears store did not know how to respond to “proper White ladies who wore gloves and hats.” In the same conversation, she noted that she had given power of attorney to her mother before departing for the south and made plans for her children. “It was a difficult decision to make,” Mrs. Whiting said of the unusual journey the women took. “But I didn’t want my children and grandchildren to think that during the greatest moral challenge of our lives, I did nothing.”
The other members of the group were Peg Lillienthal, Virginia Mazer, Polly Murphy and Nancy Smith. Another one of the founders, Audrey LeVasseur, reflecting on those days of national and personal struggle, said that while she was proud of what the founders had achieved here on the Island, “Back then I was always too angry to think about that.” Other African Americans who were involved in the formation of the chapter included Toby and Lucille Dorsey, Roscoe Heathman, Audria Tankard and Harold Johnson. This was the group that formed the organization that would be instrumental in the years ahead in raising consciousness about injustice wherever it occurred. One of their first ventures was to join the Edgartown Fourth of July parade in 1964, with a float dedicated to the goals and values of the NAACP. The float was driven by Virginia Mazer with Audria Tankard sitting beside her while Tony and Vanessa Alleyne walked ahead with Deborah Mayhew, all holding streamers. It was a statement that the NAACP was here and was part of this Island community. Later that year, Myrlee Evers was the guest of Kivi Kaplan on the Island and addressed an NAACP Civil Rights rally along with Sarah Small, a civil rights worker that the Vineyard Five had met in North Carolina. She brought a group of African American students, and her prophetic words inspired all those who wished to take action for justice: “If you let the fear in, then pretty soon you’re all fear.”
Years later those words inspired Lauren Gray, then a sophomore at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, to create a mural at the school dedicated to justice. Dangerous times and learning to think in new ways can be challenging and even frightening. The Rev. Henry Bird, the Episcopal minister at St. Andrew’s in Edgartown found that his passionate commitment to the civil rights cause created some issues in his community during the 1960s.
In 2008, the African American Heritage Trail dedicated St. Andrew’s Church as the site where the NAACP had held its inaugural meetings. In the spirit of reconciliation and commitment to justice, Brian Scott and Kate Taylor sang, and classes from the high school and the Edgartown School joined hands with church members while Toby Riseborough, grandson of Toby and Lucille Dorsey, led the congregation in singing We Shall Overcome. The church is now a site on the trail with a bronze plaque honoring the founding of the Vineyard chapter of the NAACP.
Through the years, the Vineyard branch of the NAACP has achieved what nationally still seems so elusive: a forum where people of all colors can speak to each other in a safe and honest manner. The chapter is the largest civil rights organization on the Island, its guiding principle the words of Dr. Martin Luther King that “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” Relationships of trust have been created by people of good will who accept each other’s inalienable right to equal consideration.
It is often said that people only care about issues that affect them personally. But the right to equal care and consideration is, in the words of President Kennedy “as old as the scriptures and as clear as the Constitution.” The Island chapter of the NAACP has been a fearless advocate for those who have no redress, but it has also contributed to every conversation in an inclusive manner. It has been a source of education and support for people of good will all over the Island. It is a model for the conversation that President Obama began when he spoke movingly of his feelings about the Trayvon Martin verdict. Those profound conversations can be conducted here among friends sharing a lunch or a dinner and airing their views and perspectives in a safe and open dialogue. Ever since 1963 when a multicultural gathering of brave souls stood up together for justice, our Island chapter of the NAACP has provided a forum for us to reflect on the American dream.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and founder of the African American Heritage Trail.