War of words between NAACP, tea party escalates


The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the tea party have hurled accusations of racism at each other all week, sparking off a media frenzy that has made it difficult at times to keep track of the debate.

Yesterday, the fight took a pretty bizarre turn: Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams posted an imaginary letter to President Abraham Lincoln on his personal website that accused the NAACP of being racist for using the word "colored" in its name.

This afternoon, Williams removed the post, saying it's time to "move forward" and end the name calling. He said he "heard from many very sober and thoughtful people who counseled me that my comments were an obstacle to progress and that I missed my intended target. "

Williams, who claimed this week that the NAACP makes "more money off of race than any slave trader, ever," was reacting to the group's approval of a resolution at its annual meeting on Tuesday that denounced "racist elements" within the tea party movement. By removing it, he signals that the tea party-NAACP fight may finally be over.

[Photos: Tea Party’s new star politician]

But let's take a step back. How did we get to this point? Here is The Upshot's chronological guide to the NAACP-tea party spat:

1. On Tuesday, the NAACP approved its resolution accusing tea party activists of tolerating racist elements in their movement. "For more than a year we've watched as Tea Party members have called congressmen the N-word, have called congressmen the F-word. We see them carry racist signs and whenever it happens, the membership tries to shirk responsibility," NAACP President Ben Jealous (pictured above) told ABC News. "If the Tea Party wants to be respected and wants to be part of the mainstream in this country, they have to take responsibility."

The resolution was spurred by an incident in March, when Reps. John Lewis, Andre Carson and Emanuel Cleaver said some tea party demonstrators yelled racial slurs at them as they walked to the Capitol for the final vote approving the controversial health-care-reform legislation. Cleaver said he was spat on. Conservative activists accused the congressmen of lying.

2. Tea Party activists quickly shot back, calling the NAACP racist and irrelevant. "It's a little ironic that an organization that has lost legitimacy through its own racism is trying to call another racist," Mark Meckler of Tea Party Patriots told the L.A. Times.

Tea Party Express' Williams went farther in an interview with NPR flagged by Talking Points Memo. "We are dealing with people who are professional race-baiters who make a very good living off this kind of thing. They make more money off of race than any slave trader, ever," he said. "It's time groups like the NAACP went to the trash heap of history where they belong along with all the other vile, racist groups that emerged in our history." On CNN, he called the group "a bunch of old fossils looking to make a buck off skin color."

Dallas Tea Party founder Phillip Dennis said on FOX that the NAACP is "irrelevant" and should have ended 50 years ago. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the NAACP should stop "name calling."

3. Many condemned the tea party's attack on the civil rights group as wrong-headed.

"That's the epitome of what a Tea Party patriot should not be saying," political commenter Lenny McAllister said on NPR. "They should not be saying that the NAACP is vile. The NAACP is not vile. They fought for civil rights for all types of people for years, even if they're misguided now, to use that type of language is not only inappropriate, but it does a disservice to the proud hundreds of thousands of Tea Party patriots."

Jamelle Bouie at the American Prospect wrote that the tea party's defense is based on the notion that racism only arises out of overt acts of prejudice, like racially motivated acts of violence and state-sanctioned segregation. "Now that outright racism is a rarity in the public square, it's really easy for many Americans to say that 'real racism' is a relic of the past," he said. He argued that more subtle racism is still prevalent, and a problem.

Ta-Nahesi Coates at The Atlantic wrote that the NAACP was just fulfilling its stated mission to oppose "any attempt to inject racism into American politics. " He writes the NAACP was rationally responding to several worrisome statements from tea-party-affiliated politicians and media figures.

4. Williams escalated the debate on Thursday by posting a satirical letter, under the name of NAACP President Ben Jealous to Abraham Lincoln. Among other things, the missive mocked the organization for using the term "colored." "In every one of the dozens of interviews that I have done regarding the anti-Tea Party resolution passed by the NAACP, I have brought up the absurdity of a group that calls blacks “Colored People” hurling charges of racism," he wrote before posting the letter, which is no longer available on his site:

Dear Mr. Lincoln

We [National Association for the Advancement of] Colored People have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us [National Association for the Advancement of] Colored People and we demand that it stop!

Williams pulled it down earlier this afternoon — after he'd encountered some objections in the post's comments section. He'd previously excised some sections of the original post that had sparked reader protests, including use of the term "massa" and a reference to black supporters of the civil rights group being reluctant to work in order to pay for "a wide screen TV in every room."

In explaining the decision to remove the letter, Williams wrote that because the NAACP said today that it wants to open a dialogue with the tea party, it's time for him to move on. "To that end and as a reciprocal gesture I have removed the parody letter you came here to read and urge you to fight those who seek to divide us by race, no matter the color of the racist," he wrote.

The trick now, evidently, is for participants in the new NAACP-tea party dialogue to refrain from calling each other racists.

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