The new head of the state NAACP warns that this generation's complacency could hurt generations of African Americans to come. 

Tall Order

When Edward Duane Hudson came to Virginia Union University in 1977, he came to play basketball. But the 6-foot-3 Hudson was red-shirted and never played a game. Instead, he studied history and political science and entered another competition: politics, with the emphasis on civil rights.

Along the way, he changed his name to King Salim Khalfani, which is Swahili for "the servant of God is destined to rule in peace," and took to wearing African garb as he built a career as a grassroots organizer, activist and host of the cable access show "African Perspectives."

Through the rough-and-tumble turbulence of local and state politics in the '90s, Khalfani worked as the branch and field activities coordinator for the state NAACP. During that time, he visited 97 of the 98 local NAACP branches in Virginia, knocking on a lot of doors. He also organized for the Pan-African Resource Center, African Awareness Association, Richmond Peace Education Center and the Virginia Association to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Now 40, Khalfani is the new executive director for the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, a position he's held since early June.

In a few short months, he's garnered a higher profile as his stand against the Robert E. Lee mural on the floodwall and his support for the political shunning of Richmond City Council members W.R. "Bill" Johnson Jr. and Gwen Hedgepeth made the news — events that he says will make City Council members more sensitive to the African-American community.

"Instead of fighting over murals, let's get down to the real issues," Khalfani says during a recent interview, listing a number of economic woes. "We haven't had full employment since we were slaves."

When Khalfani drops word bombs like that, he gets attention. He punctuates his sentences with sweeping gestures that reveal the cowrie shell bracelet on his right wrist, shells which were once used as currency in Western Africa. It reminds him of the two hard-won lessons he learned as a lobbyist for the NAACP: The political machine respects those who bring the money and the voters. And in Richmond, to keep your seat you had better be nimble.

"In this town with a two-year election cycle, you can't get arrogant," he says. "On a local level, we can still do things that go against the money because certain interests here give money to candidates and [that makes it] so easy to win an election. But if we send people door-to-door and start knocking and say, 'Look we need some change,' that's how El-Amin beat Jim Banks. ... On a local level, we can still affect these things if we do some real hard, grassroots work."

Organization and education are concepts that undergird Khalfani's political assessment and approach. Even when pondering the recent actions by the national NAACP office to force changes in network television programming, and gun manufacturing and distribution, Khalfani sees the local angle.

"What happens is people will call here or the Richmond office and say what can we do?," he says, referring to the NAACP's mid-July protest of the "virtual whitewash" of the 26 new fall season television shows. "So we'll tell people who call to call [their] local stations, get the 800 number for the national affiliate, write a letter."

While the NAACP plans to file a class action lawsuit against gun manufacturers to force significant changes in the industry's business practices, Khalfani is focused on the state level. "We'll continue our lobbying efforts. But I can tell you, and I just know it on this level, but that durn NRA and the gun lobby kick ass. They don't play," he says heatedly.

"But even when you get people to come and testify, it's like the [Lee mural controversy] again — 'we don't give a damn what you all want, we want to do what we want to do.' And when it comes to your elected officials, when the NRA comes in, they bow and scrape."

Khalfani's passion for the civil rights movement is atypical for his generation, the boomers who came of age after many of the legal victories of the early civil rights era. It is a looming concern for him in his new position.

He's fond of the saying that "the rewards of struggle are in the struggle," but he sees that isn't the mantra of his peers.

"Most folks my age and younger, they didn't participate in the struggle. They had to focus on the so-called integration movement," he says, referring to himself at 40 as "an anomaly" in his age group. "We were born into good times. We've reaped the fruits of those who came before us. The danger is that if we don't get on the stick, we'll be the first generation who leaves less for succeeding generations coming after us."

His former boss at the Virginia NAACP, Lynda Byrd-Harden, says Khalfani is a "diligent worker" and his presence is good for bridging the age gap. "He's trying to show there's more than one approach to ensuring equality for all citizens," she say. "I think that his future will perhaps go in the way of looking at new and innovative ways of [achieving] economic justice, as well as social and civil rights justice."

But the founder of the 64-year-old Virginia state conference and one of Khalfani's heroes isn't as enamored of Khalfani's leadership and style. "I disagree with most of the things he tries to do," said civil rights legend Oliver W. Hill just days before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his civil rights contributions — something Khalfani says he lobbied for. Hill calls Khalfani "confrontational" and says he would take the NAACP in a different direction. "He hasn't done anything constructive since he's been here."

That may be a stinging rebuke to a man who refers often to "learning from the elders." But Khalfani seems to be committed to cultivating the African perspective. "I always try to maintain [African] culture," he says, pointing to the statues, artwork and photographs that surround him. "You can look around my office and see I try to always involve the Creator and the ancestors. As African people, we have to really affirm who we are. We grow up with the messages that everything African is negative and bad, but the beginning of wisdom is to know who you


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