Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP still rolling after 50 years

The Fourth of July parade in Edgartown, 1964. From left: Deborah Mayhew , Tony Alleyne, Vanessa Alleyne, and Diane Powers. Virginia Mazer drove and Audria Tankard sat in the back. Bob Tankard is the hidden flag bearer. — By Shirley Mayhew, courtesy Afri

On a sun-dappled day in 1964, the newly formed Martha’s Vineyard Chapter of the NAACP wrote a small chapter of history when it marched in its first Fourth of July parade. The black-and-white photo shown here, like many that will be on display at the 50th anniversary bash at Hooked, on Saturday, August 17, captures an early moment in the chapter’s 50 year history. In 1964, change was ascendant. But no one in these photographs had any idea how much would change in the next 50 years.

“This is one of my favorite pictures in the world,” Diane Powers of West Tisbury, the tunic-clad blonde on the far right, told The Times recently. “It was my first parade. We were friends of the Mazers and they asked if we’d be in it. Virginia was extremely active in the NAACP. We had a great response. I remember feeling overwhelmed.”

Bob Tankard, the obscured flag bearer recalls, “I remember feeling very proud of the organization and the movement that we were a part of. I felt, being 16, the least I could do is carry the flag and show my patriotism and support,” he said. “Back then, the Smiths, the Murphys, the Whitings, the Dorseys, the Mayhews, all got involved with the NAACP. I remember, after the parade, my best friends, Tom Bennett and Tony DaRosa, saying it was cool that I did it. They said, ‘I didn’t know you didn’t have rights. I didn’t know you couldn’t go in the same places in the south that I can.’ Before that parade, they didn’t understand the NAACP.”

The civil rights movement is in the DNA of the Vineyard, especially in Oak Bluffs, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Harry Bellafonte, and Joe Louis had all visited for respite. Kivie Kaplan, the longtime driving force of the National NAACP, summered in Oak Bluffs, and he helped get the Vineyard chapter off ground. “Kivie Kaplan was huge in getting things started here on the Vineyard,” said Bob Tankard.

Chris Murphy, a high school member of the chapter recalled, “Kivie was a real character. Everybody knew who he was. He’d walk around town, giving out business cards with his name on one side and ‘Smile’ on the other side.”

With the help of Mr. Kaplan, and the inspiration of the great leaders of the black community in their presence, the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP was founded by Audria Tankard, Audrey Levasseur, Toby Dorsey, Lucille Dorsey, Virginia Mazer, Polly Murphy, and Shirley Mayhew, to name a few.

“In the early days, the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP was pretty evenly made up of black and white people. It was part of their strength,” said longtime chapter member Elaine Weintraub, who co-founded the African American Heritage Trail.

“You can solve problems if people talk to one another, and people do that here.” said Vera Shorter, a pillar of the Island African-American community and a member of the chapter since the mid 1970s. “We handled many complaints which we didn’t publicize. It’s a small town, we don’t do that. We would personally go into stores and talk to owners and managers, and they became much more receptive to hiring people of color. We changed the complexion of the service, so to speak, that you receive in town. This is a place where people can talk.”

The Vineyard chapter had an inauspicious beginning. The inaugural meeting in November 1963 was cancelled because President Kennedy had been shot. It was only two months prior that Kennedy put a fire under the civil rights movement when he overruled Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett and mandated, with the backing of Federal Troops, that James Meredith be admitted to the all-white University of Mississippi. The president who had stood unequivocally for equality was dead. But the change he started would gain momentum, locally and nationally.

Over the coming 50 years, the Vineyard NAACP chapter would make advances in employment, education, affordable housing, and voter registration. Every year the chapter awards college scholarships to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students. This past year, three $1,500 scholarships were awarded.

“What I would like is for us to embrace more young people,” Ms. Shorter said. “This is an old organization, with a great history, except that it’s not dramatic. It was only dramatic during the civil rights movement, so it doesn’t have the same appeal to young people. But the NAACP really is a force — a constant force to keep people on their toes.”

In December 2012, Police Chief Erik Blake was elected president — at 45, he’s the youngest member in the chapter. A white police chief leading the chapter of the NAACP chapter is a very rare event, even for the Vineyard.

“I don’t mind being unique” Mr. Blake said. “I’ve always supported the mission of the NAACP, as a private citizen and as a law enforcement officer. We have a unique situation in Oak Bluffs. We need young people. The older people can teach them so much. They’ve accomplished so much, and done it behind the scenes. But young people can bring a new energy and help us establish a presence in social media. Maybe new eyes can help us solve problems.”

President Obama was a month short of three years old when the 1964 parade photo was taken. At that time, there were many places in this country where he couldn’t go. Now, he’s visiting the Island as the nation’s first black president, re-elected last fall to a second term. Clearly, racism of all kinds still exists, on the Island and elsewhere, but there’s no denying that the 174 members of the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and their guests, have some major advances to celebrate this Saturday night.

When Mr. Tankard was holding that flag high and swelling with patriotic pride, did he ever think a black man could become president in this lifetime?

“Never, never, ever, did I think it would happen,” said Mr. Tankard. “I was totally shocked. I met Obama, and I remember thinking, ‘If it’s one guy that could do it before I die, it would be this kid.’ The night he won, Tom Bennett called me on the phone to say congratulations. We were both crying.”