The Columbus NAACP branch was so well respected a decade ago, its president became the leader of the civil rights organization’s state conference and then became the only current national board member from Georgia.
But now, chronic infighting among the Columbus branch members has ruined that respect beyond the ability of the local officers to repair it, according to NAACP officials. As a result, the NAACP national board has ordered the Columbus branch officers to vacate their positions.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People board member James Gallman confirmed the order in a phone interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.
“We’ve gotten several complaints about the confusion that’s going on in the community,” Gallman, an executive committee member and assistant treasurer for the NAACP branch in Aiken, S.C., said of the situation in Columbus. “There are a lot of people who have refused to support the branch. When you are a community-based organization and you don’t have the support of the community, it has to do with the leadership, and it’s time to get different leadership.”
Gallman said the national board hasn’t decided whether to allow the current Columbus branch officers to run for leadership positions again.
“I am waiting on correspondence from the national office about when this will take effect,” he said. “A letter will go to all of the Columbus branch officers.”
Three months ago, the national board appointed Gallman to be the Columbus NAACP branch’s administrator to help the local civil rights leaders solve their problems. Last month, Gallman said an internal audit cleared Columbus NAACP branch president Tonza Thomas and the rest of its officers of any wrongdoing amid allegations of financial impropriety.
But the conflicts in the branch persisted, convincing Gallman to recommend this drastic move to the national NAACP board.
Asked how common such action is among the NAACP’s approximately 2,200 units, Gallman said he didn’t have a number available but emphasized it’s rare.
“Lots of units have problems, and we go in and do our best and get them to where they can continue to serve,” he said. “I’m sure other units in the past have had officers vacate, but it’s just an unfortunate situation.”
The national board’s 64 members unanimously approved Gallman’s recommendation, Edward DuBose told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview. DuBose is a former Columbus branch president (1997-2003) and state conference president (2005-2013) for the NAACP and its only current national board member from Georgia, where he remains on the state board.
DuBose said he “totally” agrees with Gallman’s assessment.
“I already had observed that we were at a critical point with the Columbus branch,” DuBose said. “When he came in as an outsider, even he saw that there was no other course but to vacate these positions.”
All of which is painful for DuBose to admit.
“To see the operation in Columbus basically shut down because it needs an overhaul, on one hand it’s good to get a fresh start, but, on the other hand, you wonder how we got here,” DuBose said.
Then he was asked to answer his question. He declined to be specific, but DuBose concluded, “It’s a breakdown in trust, a breakdown in leadership. … It’s more than personalities.”
Gallman also declined to delineate what he called “myriad issues that have caused the confusion” at the Columbus branch.
Thomas, however, told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview Friday that the problems boil down to her commitment to not “go along to get along. I don’t believe in being a puppet on a string. I don’t care if you give a lot of money. If I see malfeasance, I’ve got to call malfeasance out.”
First vice president Freddie Williams didn’t reply to the Ledger-Enquirer’s request to comment for this story. But second vice president Barbara Pierce told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview that the branch is divided between two camps: Some members side with Thomas and Williams, while others side with the rest of the officers, who are third vice president J.A. Hud, secretary Catrina Drake, assistant secretary Alexis Williams, treasurer Erma Everett and assistant treasurer Julia Hollis.
At least Thomas and Pierce agree with the order to vacate.
“If this is a way to get new blood,” Thomas said, “that is cool with me.”
“Some people say I was the problem because I was trying to make sure it was done right,” Pierce said. “If that means to shut it down, I have no problem with that. It’s a mess. It needs to be reorganized. … If the president stepped down, we could have all stepped up and kept going, but we had no other choice. When leadership isn’t right, everything else falls.”
Thomas countered, “I could have resigned, but I wasn’t going to allow them to push me out of the organization because they had no cause. ... I was accused publicly, and I was exonerated publicly, but that faction would not stop.”
Gallman noted the national NAACP board can remove just the local president, but the problems are more pervasive in the Columbus branch, he said.
“I appreciate the national office for doing this because the NAACP has to protect their brand,” Thomas said. “When you have old school versus new school, I’m a game changer because that’s what the NAACP taught me to be.”
Thomas defended her record as branch president by listing several accomplishments, such as being the only Georgia branch to win a national NAACP award for programming in 2015 and 2017. The activism she mentioned includes calling for the Columbus Crime Prevention director to resign, speaking against alleged injustices at the Muscogee County Jail and helping to defeat the Muscogee County School District’s proposal to hire a for-profit company to run some alternative education programs.
Pierce was president of the Columbus branch for eight months in 1996 until she resigned because her role as the District 7 representative on the Muscogee County School Board (1993-2000) became a conflict of interest when the NAACP and school board were in a legal dispute.
The Columbus NAACP branch had more than 100 members when Thomas was elected president in 2014 but now has around half that number – and only 10 or so are active, Pierce said. Thomas, however, gave vastly different figures. She said membership has grown from 114 to 157 during her four-year tenure, and the 19 executive committee members are so active, she said, they must meet in churches because the branch office doesn’t have enough room for them anymore.
Fundraising for the branch has plummeted this past year to roughly 20 percent of what it normally generates, Pierce said. Thomas again disputes Pierce’s figures, but she acknowledged fundraising is down by “10 to 15” percent.
That’s why, Pierce said, officers tried to convince Thomas to postpone the branch’s Freedom Fund banquet in January. They didn’t feel properly prepared to host the branch’s annual fundraiser – “We didn’t want to embarrass ourselves,” Pierce said – but Thomas refused.
So all the officers except Thomas and Williams boycotted the event, Pierce said.
Thomas contends, “We had the best Freedom Fund banquet we ever had. We had diversity ... state and local and federal officials. ... So when Barbara Pierce left, she should have stayed gone. She’s been nothing but a cancer.”
Arguing about the banquet was a public instance of a mostly private problem: Thomas circumventing other officers by making decisions without consulting the executive committee, Pierce said.
“A lot of us who have been here for years hate to see it being torn down,” Pierce said. “We’ve been fighting so much against the president, people hate to go to meetings and want to quit.”
Thomas said she just completed seven years as the Georgia state conference NAACP secretary, so she knows the bylaws. “We have to give up this plantation mentality,” she said. “We don’t have to ask somebody to make change.”
The NAACP branch elections usually are in November and people must be members as of April 1 to vote. But the Columbus branch’s special election, which is expected to be conducted in September, will cut that minimum amount of membership time to 30 days, Gallman said, so more new members will be eligible to vote and run for office.
Anyone interested in becoming a member of the Columbus NAACP branch should contact Gallman at 803-215-1311 or email him at email@example.com, he said.
“We’re hoping people who haven’t been involved now will choose to become members or run for leadership,” Gallman said. “… We need good people with good leadership skills to come forward.”
Despite her frustration with the branch’s situation, Pierce said she is “very hopeful” about its ability to restore its respected reputation.
“If we get new leadership and direction, we’ll be fine,” she said. “People are waiting out there. We lost a lot of good people who could do the job, but they were clashing with the leaders – and these aren’t paid positions, so they get up and go.”
Such hope is another aspect of the branch where Thomas and Pierce find common ground.
“I’m a life member of the NAACP, and I will be here forever,” Thomas said.
DuBose also is optimistic about the branch’s future.
“I am absolutely hopeful this branch can turn it around,” he said. “The ministerial alliance is trying to help, and some elected officials and longtime supporters have expressed interest in rolling up their sleeves and making this branch better than ever.”
Asked whether he would run for Columbus NAACP branch president again, DuBose said, “I see my role as a person who can direct resources down from the national board and state conference to the local branch. I see that increasing once the branch can demonstrate its ability to perform as a team.”
Thomas said she would indeed run for branch president again if allowed.
“You better believe it and bet your bottom dollar,” she said. “I am not going to give up this organization to placate.”