There’s another white NAACP chapter president, but this one isn’t lying about his identity.
Donald Harris of Phoenix has a lengthy résumé: Marine Corps lieutenant during Vietnam; district attorney and judge in Arizona; Israeli military volunteer; and onetime legal eagle for Canadian hockey players in the 1970s.
But in December, the outspoken defense lawyer added another notch to his belt: president of Maricopa County’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And he’s a white Jewish man born in Brooklyn.
“Some people are resentful of a white face of the NAACP,” Harris told The Daily Beast. “I don’t like it, but I understand it. Anyone that knows me for the past approximately 15 years [knows] I’ve given blood, sweat, tears and money to support the NAACP in Arizona."
Like many chapter bosses, Harris has nervously watched the drama unfold over Spokane, Washington NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal, who resigned Monday amid questions surrounding her racial identity.
“She was an in-your-face civil rights worker -- I respect that part of it,” Harris told The Daily Beast. “The problem is when she got personal benefits out of it. That’s what bothers me. You’ve crossed the line from being a do-gooder to doing-good-for-me.”
He added: “She had a lot of pluses and could have achieved what she achieved without four hours at the tanning studio every week.”
Last week, Dolezal’s parents outed her as a white woman pretending to be black. They presented childhood photos of a blonde and fair-skinned girl, and said she even won a full scholarship to the historically black Howard University by presenting herself as an African American artist.
“When somebody strikes a blow against my organization -- and it is mine -- I don’t like it,” Harris said. “When you cheat, it’s going to come back and fall on your head.”
Harris was elected to Maricopa County’s NAACP branch in December after no one stepped up to replace the Rev. Oscar Tillman, who retired after almost three decades. (Two people who wanted to run didn’t meet membership requirements.)
“Don said from day one, ‘If anybody else runs, I’m out of here. I would not allow this position to just be standing open,’ and that’s what he did,” Tillman told The Daily Beast.
But some veteran members in Phoenix weren’t happy. After Tillman announced his replacement at a local event, several people cornered him to question why an African-American president wasn’t elected. Tillman told them elections are out of his control.
“The elders are still caught up in the [idea] that the NAACP should have black leadership -- no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” Tillman said.
Still, Harris has been active with the NAACP for decades, taking on pro bono cases and writing amicus briefs in death penalty cases. He routinely takes calls on housing and police issues and is now fighting the Arizona governor’s plan to subsidize a privately-run prison to the tune of $100 million.
“I know Don,” Tillman added. “He don’t take no crap … and he is one of the nicest persons you’ll ever meet. I don’t care what your problem is - he’ll stand up and defend you. That’s the whole thing about him. I don’t care what you’ve done, Don will take your case.”
Harris concedes he’s not everyone’s “favorite flavor of the week.” After the election, a few members tried to create an executive director position to get him out of the spotlight, he claimed.
“People don’t understand how hard we work every goddamned day,” he added.
He had more colorful words for the Arizona Republic: "I feel like I'm making a contribution ... I really do. At the end of two years, if I walk out of here and somebody says, 'The son of a bitch tried,' I'm gonna be a happy guy. They know I tried."
When Harris isn’t representing the NAACP, he’s a volunteer with the Israeli army. Through a program facilitated by a Phoenix Jewish center, he does simple tasks, like wash tanks or wrap bandages, he says. He’s been to the country 37 times since 1972.
He said a military commander there tried to give him the boot but he stood his ground.
Harris was born to two Jewish liberals in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. His parents were NAACP members themselves, and his dad a union organizer who advised his son never to cross a picket line.
He’s a member of the NAACP, he said, because “you have to start out with the premise that all people deserve to be treated equally, not tolerated.”