NAACP leader presses for change

Published 2:37 pm Monday, March 1, 2010

Charles Gates can still remember hiding under a bed, worried that he and his family might get shot as National Guard tanks drove down his street during the 1967 race riots in Newark, N.J.

More than two dozen people were killed and more than 700 were injured during six days of violence following the arrest of a black cabdriver who was charged with improperly passing a police car with two white police officer inside. Another 1,500 people were arrested, and property damage exceeded $10 million.

Suffolk, Va., is a long way — both geographically and culturally — from Newark, and the changes that have taken place in society at large during the more than four decades since those tragic events have culminated with, among other things, a black man holding the position of President of the United States.

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Amidst such changes, Gates believes, the NAACP — an organization that once needed to concentrate on securing basic human rights for black Americans — also needs to change.

As president of Suffolk’s NAACP chapter for a little more than a year, Gates has been working to redirect the local organization’s efforts to make it more relevant to Suffolk in the 21st century.

“People of color — especially African-Americans — we are our own worst enemies,” he says, noting that rampant violence and a culture that disconnects itself from the success of even its own products are evidence of the problem.

“As opposed to the past, now we’re more or less advocates for change, especially among young people,” he said of the NAACP as it exists today. “We want to bring this change about here.”

If there’s one person who could bring that change about all by himself, one gets the impression that it would be Gates.

He’s involved in organizations ranging from the NAACP to Toastmasters to the Y2K Academy; he’s an exercise coordinator with the Let’s Get Real Initiative and works with the First Books organization to get books into the hands of poor kids around the area; he teaches teens financial investment strategies and just recently started a youth council through the NAACP to give area youth a chance to “build leadership through civic engagement.”

All this on top of a 9-to-5 job as a FedEx delivery driver on the Peninsula, along with regular day trading and dabbling in the real estate market.

A description of his daily life reads like an example of the lesson he wants the youth of Suffolk to learn: “Whatever you want to do, you can do,” he says

For Gates, the corollary to that statement seems to be, “Do whatever you can do.”

“There’s a lot of challenges that we face, and I don’t think we’ve got a lot of people willing to step up to the challenge,” he says. “Me, I’ll take on all challenges. I never stop; there’s just so much that needs to get done.”

Youth, especially in the black community that the NAACP supports, need to learn personal responsibility, self reliance and self respect, he says, and the organizations he is involved with give him a chance to help achieve those goals.

But even Gates understands that impacting a community is not a one-man job.

“I want to make a difference, starting in Suffolk, and making that difference in the entire Hampton Roads area, and I can’t make that difference alone.”

Gates lives in the Kempton Park neighborhood in North Suffolk, along with his wife Lei Lana and three German shepherd dogs. They have two grown daughters — Tania, who works for the FDA in Rockville, Md., and Tiffany, who attends Old Dominion University. He attends East End Baptist Church.