Romney To Make His Case To NAACP

The NAACP is gearing up for its annual conference in Houston, Texas. Each year, the civil rights group attracts big names, including this year's guest speaker, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Host Michel Martin talks with conference organizer Leon Russell about what's on his members' minds for this year's election.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we will hear from a writer who's bringing new perspective on life in Africa. We'll speak with rising Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde, the winner of this year's Caine Prize for African literature. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we are going to hear from two of the nation's largest civil rights organizations on the eve of their annual conventions - the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the NAACP, and the National Council of La Raza, which advocates for civil rights for Latinos.

Every year those conventions tackle some big issues and attract big names, and this election year is no different. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney plans to speak to the NAACP and Vice President Joe Biden is heading to Las Vegas to speak to La Raza. So we thought it would be a good time to check in with officials from both of these groups.

In a few minutes we'll hear from Ron Estrada, who's organizing La Raza's annual convention. But now we're joined by Leon Russell. He is vice chairman of the NAACP's board of directors. He's been involved with the organization for 30 years and he is the chairman of this year's convention in Houston. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

LEON RUSSELL: It's good to be here. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So, you know, Mr. Russell, a lot of Americans, especially people of color, are struggling economically right now, so I was wondering, is it harder to get people to come to a convention right now?

RUSSELL: It is a little bit more difficult. Obviously people have their own pocketbooks to worry about and conventions can be expensive, but we're looking for 7,000 people to join us during the days that we're out in Houston and we're looking forward to it.

MARTIN: Now, of course this election is taking place - your convention, rather, is taking place during an election year and the theme of this year's conference is Your Power, Your Decision: Vote. Talk about how - that theme, and how are you addressing these important election year issues at the convention?

RUSSELL: Well, first of all, understanding that our 103-year history has been about making sure that the right to vote is available and accessible to all Americans, and then secondly, trying to educate folks on the power of the vote.

We are looking at this year particularly in terms of what we see as an effort to suppress the vote, and that has been a major motivator for us and for our units across the country as we look at efforts to cut back early voting, to reduce the number of hours for voting, to put more requirements on what a person must do to identify themselves as a voter.

We try to say to folks, look, if people are so concerned that they would go to those lengths to discourage you from voting, it must be important to your community that you get out and vote. And so we're talking about get out for your own self-interest.

MARTIN: You know, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, receiving five percent of the African-American vote compared with 92 of African-Americans surveyed who support President Obama.

You know, given that, are you surprised that Mr. Romney accepted the organization's invitation to come? And are you disappointed and surprised that the president did not?

RUSSELL: Well, first of all, I'm not surprised that Mr. Romney chooses to come and speak to us. I think it's very important for him to get his message out to us and to all other groups. I suppose he wants us to know that he wants our vote; he intends to be president of all the people if he is elected. Likewise, we are disappointed that the president won't be with us, but in fact, Vice President Biden will be us.

He will carry the message of the administration, certainly in the same vein. He will tell us why we should continue to be motivated or we should get motivated and get out there in those respects.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to talk about one of those hot button social issues that we're talking about a lot these days which is same sex marriage. President Obama affirmed his personal support for same sex marriage earlier this year, and just a couple of days later the NAACP also endorsed gay marriage rights.

That decision has not been universally embraced by members. I just wondered, in the course of the convention, will there be discussions about this issue? Will there be an attempt to try to persuade those who are still skeptical about the NAACP stance on this issue?

RUSSELL: We're going to be ready to explain why the national board took the position that it took. Quite frankly, this is not a discussion that is new to the association; it's just the public statement that is new. We feel very, very sincerely that it's deeply rooted in our belief that the 14th Amendment does require us to insist on equal justice for all people.

By the way, we will have our LGBT taskforce meeting during the regular workshop sessions, and that issue will be the hot button discussion in that forum, I'm sure. Michel, can I take a moment...

MARTIN: Sure.

RUSSELL: ...just to congratulate our president and CEO, Benjamin Todd Jealous and his wife Lia. Yesterday at 5:45 p.m., Lia gave birth to Jackson Eperson Todd Jealous, their new son, a Fourth of July baby. And we're very happy at the NAACP that our president and CEO and his family have added this new member to our NAACP family.

MARTIN: New lifetime member.

RUSSELL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you for breaking that news for us. We appreciate it and congratulations to the Jealous family.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Leon Russell is the chair of this year's NAACP convention which starts this weekend in Houston, Texas, but we caught up with him in advance on his way to the convention at WUSF in Tampa, Florida. Mr. Russell, thank you.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

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