Rev. Ira Acree wants to be next NAACP president

September 23, 2013
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The Rev. Ira Acree is working to gain support in his pursuit to become the NAACP’s next national president.

The 104-year-old group’s current president, Benjamin Jealous, announced earlier this month he’s stepping down after a five-year tenure to spend more time with his family. He leaves the post in December, according to a press release.

The position is an appointed one, so a special committee will decide who fills the post.

“We plan on hand-delivering my resume to the headquarters (in Washington, D.C.),” Acree said.

Acree created his own committee to help him gain support. So far, he said the committee is helping him update his resume and has created an online petition, which had 285 signatures vouching for him as of Sept. 22.

He has been a pastor for 24 years at Greater St. John Bible Church, 1256 N. Waller St., but Acree stressed he’s done much more than hold Sunday services.

“I have the passion for social justice, human rights and civil rights. I’ve had it for a long time,” he said.

Acree said he’s held several marches, youth-related events and mentoring programs for the neighborhood kids throughout his time as pastor.

If he’s chosen as the NAACP’s next president, Acree said he wants to focus on making the association “more relevant” for younger generations so they can carry the group in to the future.

He also wants to focus on “economy parity” for everyone, saying unemployment is consistently higher for African-Americans than other races. He would also focus on educational equality and greater access to health care.

But criminal justice reform would be his highest priority. Acree said he wants to specifically focus on programs for ex-offenders.

“We need to look in to having jobs for (ex-offenders), so they can go back in to society,” he said. “We need to look at ways of rehabilitating these criminals who are non-violent offenders.”

Acree’s work for social justice issues has largely been local, with some national outreach.

He’s a co-founder of the LEADER’s Network, a local group of ministers that focuses on advocacy for civil rights and disaster relief. He said the group raised $50,000 for those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Most recently, Acree cited the group’s role in an $8.5 million settlement for the family of 18-year-old Aaron Harrison, who in 2007 was shot in the back and killed by a police officer who said Harrison pulled out a gun during an argument.

The Independent Police Review Authority said the shooting was justified, but Harrison’s family filed a civil suit against the officer. Acree said he was a key force in advocating for the family, which he says eventually helped bring the jury’s decision in favor of the family.

Now, he and other area pastors are pushing for at least one community leader to have a position on the Review Authority board.

It’s a toss up if Acree could be a strong candidate, said Cedric Johnson, an associate professor of African-American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Jealous, the current president, was not a nationally well-known figure when he took office, Johnson said, which works in Acree’s favor.

But he came from an activist background and was known as an organizer for NAACP before becoming president, which put him in a competitive position.

Jealous was also able to increase membership numbers, raise money for the organization and had connections in Washington, D.C., where NAACP heavily lobbies for civil rights issues, Johnson said.

“My sense is that they want somebody who can work within the Washington circles,” Johnson said.

Jealous also had to prove himself as an activist – and did, Johnson said, when he protested to keep the Audubon Ballroom in New York City untouched, the site of Malcom X’s assassination.

If Acree can show similar qualifications, he could be a contender, Johnson said.

And unlike the past, today’s NAACP leaders don’t have the national popularity they used to, said Marion Orr, a political science professor at Brown University who specializes in community organizing and consistently follows the NAACP.

“What they’ve done historically is try to tap in to the long line of the folks who’ve been part of the civil rights struggle and who’ve been connected to it,” he said, citing past presidents like Myrlie Evers-Williams, a civil rights activist and widow of Medgar Evers.

He added that he “was in shock” when the association announced it had chosen Jealous as the president because he had never heard of him.

Acree said his local support continues to grow. He’s backed by people in the community, other pastors and state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, whose district includes Austin. Acree said he hopes to gain national traction as his local support snowballs.

Mattie Harris, a former Austin resident who’s attended Acree’s church for 18 years, said she will reach out to politicians and friends she knows in other states to help his cause.

She said she’s convinced that Acree has the personality and drive for the position.

“I think he’s really interested in advancing people. I want him to reach his potential,” she said.

It’s unclear when the search committee will make a final decision, Acree said. In the meantime, he said he will do anything to get the spot.

“If it means traveling back and forth, if it means multiple meetings… I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I believe in my heart that I am the next president.”

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