RALEIGH, NC – The NAACP’s national president chastised women who recently went public with a sexual harassment claim and he was reluctant to swiftly deal with the accusations against a former North Carolina officer, according to emails and recordings obtained by The Associated Press.
The emails also indicate that he knew about the complaint two years before he says he did.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson spoke in October at the state convention of the North Carolina conference, which was roiling because less than two weeks earlier, a former employee had held a news conference where she accused her supervisor of sexual harassment. With no news reporters present, he urged members not to further air the accusations in public, according to recordings provided to The Associated Press by a person who sought anonymity for fear of retribution.
Two people who attended the meeting confirmed Johnson's statements. The emails were provided by a person who also sought anonymity because of fear of retribution.
Jazmyne Childs, a former youth and college director for the state chapter, had made a public statement on Sept. 25 saying she had endured unwanted physical contact and harassment starting shortly after her employment began in 2017. She identified the harasser as her supervisor, the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, who was running for president of the state chapter at the time of the news conference.
Gatewood said in an email on Oct. 2 that while he never intentionally harassed anyone, he realized his actions “may have been received as sexual.”
Childs' news conference came days after another announcement about the matter from the Elder Women of the NC NAACP, group of older female leaders and members.
Responding to a question about how can people be prevented from speaking to the media, Johnson made it clear that he was unhappy with public criticism of the NAACP.
“This is the sad part,” he said, adding that he hoped no one in the room would use the media as a tool, “because as we do this, others outside of us can easily seize the opportunity to advance an interest that’s against all of us.
Although he called no one by name, women who attended both the news conference and the state convention said Johnson's comments were clearly directed at them since no one else had criticized the NAACP publicly. They said it was disappointing but not surprising, given what they described as a misogynistic culture within the 110-year-old civil rights organization.
“It’s the same misogynistic ideology that keeps down women and all who suffer sexual oppression and that goes against the mission of the NAACP,” said Ana Ilarraza-Blackburn, a member of the state’s Elder Women. “That mission failed when the national failed to act. ... We went by protocol, we called the national, we asked what we were supposed to do, we submitted the information, and they still didn’t act.”
Daphne Holmes-Johnson, another Elder Women member, said Johnson’s remarks were meant to chastise the women who spoke out for Childs.
“His whole approach was to scold us as if we did something wrong,” she said.
Before Johnson spoke, reporters were asked to leave the convention. The Associated Press later received a recording of Johnson’s remarks. Neither Johnson nor an NAACP spokesman responded to emails seeking comment.
Johnson said members should seek help from the national office by requesting help through their board minutes or by filing a request for discipline through what’s called an Article 10 in the NAACP’s constitution.
He said he knew nothing official about the harassment charges until Sept. 11, when Childs filed the Article 10 request for Gatewood.
But emails show Johnson was made aware of Childs' charges in October 2017. An email says he asked that a report by an outside investigator be forwarded to the national NAACP’s legal counsel, Brad Berry. It was sent by Irving Joyner, legal counsel for the North Carolina state conference and a law professor at North Carolina Central University.
“On behalf of the NC NAACP and upon suggestion of President Johnson, I am forwarding the attached investigative report regarding a sexual harassment claim ...” Joyner wrote. He provided the report to Berry “for any further action that should be taken and any guidance which you, as our national counsel, can provide,” he wrote.
Emails also show that Childs attempted to reach Johnson at least three times: on June 28; Sept. 4 and Sept. 9, when she filed the request for an Article 10 hearing. In the Sept. 9 email, she said she would go public if she didn't get response.
She then held a news conference on Sept. 25. “First, I was violated by the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, then violated by the national NAACP," she said.
One day later, Johnson suspended Gatewood from NAACP membership pending a hearing into the sexual harassment allegations.
Johnson also said no one would have advised the state NAACP, Childs or her attorney, Geeta Kapur, to do anything other than request a disciplinary hearing.
But in a July 1, 2019, email to “Dear Leadership,” Berry noted that were “serious concerns” about providing the investigative report to the state NAACP’s full executive committee because it might be disclosed to Gatewood and the public “right away.”
“What I intended to advise — and hopefully did advise — was that the State Conference should not provide copies of the investigative report to the Executive Committee, but instead should orally summarize the conclusions ...,” Berry wrote.
He wrote that he also had advised that the conference seek a cease-and-desist order.
Johnson did offer some sympathy to victims of sexual harassment.
“There is no excuse, there is no room to tolerate any level of sexual harassment,” he said. “You don’t attack individuals who make the claim of sexual harassment as if they’re dishonest or as if there was something wrong with them, particularly if we’re talking about our young people.”
At one point, Johnson challenged the delegates to call him out if they believed he was saying anything different from what he had said earlier. “So if there is anything in writing where I said something differently from what I’m saying today, I need to see it. ... I would love to have that conversation because they don’t exist,” he said.
Follow Martha Waggoner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc.