SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Civil rights leaders in this largely white city that lies between the Cascade and Rocky mountains are worried that the ruse perpetrated by former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal will hurt efforts to move the region beyond a troubled racial past.
Dolezal resigned her NAACP post this week after her parents revealed she was a white woman who for years posed as black.
“I think it is a setback,” said Virla Spencer, 36, of Spokane, who is black. “It’s sad we have to focus so much on this when there is so much more work to do.”
Spokane, a city of 210,000, is 90 percent white and the major population center of the intermountain region known as the Inland Northwest. Only about 2 percent of Spokane, which is about 270 miles east of Seattle, is black. The Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi organization, was for decades based north of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Its members exported violence and crime throughout the region.
The group was bankrupted in 2000 following a lawsuit pursued by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and it largely ceased to exist. Its legacy persists, however, to the frustration of many. Some members of the movement remained in the area, including one who said he wanted to build a new compound in northern Idaho.
Katari Johnson, an NAACP member who started a petition demanding that Dolezal resign, said the group had been damaged by Dolezal’s actions. “The NAACP has some work to do,” Johnson said.
Many people in the group came to question Dolezal’s motives for running for president last fall, Johnson said. “Was it about the movement or about Rachel?” Johnson said.
Dolezal, who lives in Coeur d’Alene, resigned Monday as president of the Spokane branch of the NAACP, saw her biography removed from the website of Eastern Washington University, where she was as a part-time African studies instructor, and was fired as a freelance newspaper columnist. She also is being investigated by the city Ethics Commission over whether she lied about her race on her application when she landed an appointment to Spokane’s police oversight board.
The Spokesman-Review also reported Tuesday that Dolezal had presented herself as the daughter of a black Oakland, California, police officer when seeking appointment to the police oversight commission last year. Her actual father is white.
Blaine Stum, head of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, said Dolezal’s “lies have done damage to the people who trusted her.” Stum said, however, that he thought the furor over Dolezal wouldn’t hurt attempts at racial justice.
Several NAACP members said Dolezal, 37, is welcome to remain in the organization, where her work has been praised.
But former Spokane NAACP President James Wilburn disputed the contention that Dolezal had greatly improved the Spokane branch of the NAACP during her six months as president. “It’s a poke in the eye of other leaders who had been working in the trenches and doing things,” Wilburn said.
Dolezal, who has a light brown complexion and dark curly hair, graduated from historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and was married to a black man. For years, she publicly described herself as black or partly black.
The uproar began last week after Dolezal’s parents said their daughter is white with a trace of Native American heritage. They produced photos of her as a girl with fair skin and straight blond hair.
On Tuesday, Dolezal said on NBC’s “Today” show that she started identifying as black around age 5, when she drew self-portraits with a brown crayon, and she “takes exception” to the contention she tried to deceive people.
Asked by Matt Lauer if she is an “an African-American woman,” Dolezal said: “I identify as black.”
Stum of the Spokane Human Rights Commission said activists needed to focus on their work. “We just have to move on,” he said.
But for some, the hard feelings over Dolezal’s actions linger.
Angela Jones, an NAACP member, said Dolezal going into the black community and describing herself as African American was “the ultimate betrayal.”
“She has to heal,” Jones said. “I have to heal.”
Associated Press writer Kiley Armstrong in New York contributed to this report.