In his four years as Boston’s NAACP president, Michael Curry has boosted membership, recruited young volunteers, and revived the limping local chapter, making it an emerging player on the city’s political scene.
But now Curry is facing a fierce challenge for the presidency from another prominent civil rights advocate — Larry Ellison, the outspoken president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.
Ellison has spent the past few weeks making a case that he will be a stronger, more vocal leader, and has launched a drive to recruit members who would support him.
An election pitting the two well-known members of Boston’s African-American community against each other — one a self-styled diplomat; the other, a firebrand — has awakened sections of the city amid a low-wattage governor’s race.
While the race indisputably is a matter of style versus substance, it is also about the heart of the NAACP and the high expectations for the oldest chapter of one of the nation’s oldest civil rights organizations.
“We have to acknowledge the fact that Michael did in fact turn that organization around,’’ said Horace Small, a Jamaica Plain civil rights advocate and friend of both men. “Mike is a diplomat. But in these difficult times, we need someone who has Larry’s fire as well as a diplomat.”
Both men, raised along the edges of Roxbury, have pressed to resolve unsolved murders, gain better jobs in urban areas, cut crime, and end housing and employment discrimination, their supporters say.
But their leadership styles stand in stark contrast.
Curry, a 46-year-old lawyer and health care lobbyist from Brockton, is viewed by supporters as a collaborator who toils behind the scenes building coalitions and securing a coveted inside track to City Hall. But critics complain Curry is too conciliatory on issues they care most about — assertions he strongly dismisses.
“People sometimes gravitate to people with the loudest voice, but it is about getting results,’’ Curry said. “I only use a loud voice when I need to. But if I can use a political or legal end to get things done sooner, then I will.”
Ellison, a 50-year-old Boston detective leading the 400-member officers’ group, is best known for his advocacy for black, Latino, and Asian officers, never shying away from confronting police and City Hall officials.
But critics have slammed Ellison, who toured Grove Hall with GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker on Wednesday, for his repeated complaints and rigid stances, which they say have alienated political allies and obstructed progress. Ellison rejects those criticisms.
“Whenever you stand up for yourself, people will label you as a troublemaker,” he said. “People of color are underserved . . . so someone needs to be out there sounding the battle cry.”
The century-old Boston NAACP is an all-volunteer organization, sustained by its paid membership.
Its presidency, an unpaid post, comes with a big platform and the power of the NAACP’s legacy.
Emmett Price, a Northeastern University professor and local minister who knows both men, said he sees the Curry-Ellison contest as good for the community, showcasing two worthy opponents in an election set for Nov. 24.
“Michael Curry will be forced to take a different look inside the organization to see if it is really meeting the needs of the different constituents in the city, because Larry Ellison is going to push a different conversation,’’ Price said.
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Curry has belonged to the NAACP branch for nearly two decades, rising through the ranks over the years. In his 2010 run for president, Curry fended off a challenge from Bill Owens, the state’s first African-American senator.
Since winning, Curry, as head of the 1,000-member NAACP, has formed community and corporate alliances and drawn in young volunteers, his backers say.
Curry said his critics, including Ellison, have never taken an active role in the NAACP, including joining as members.
Leonard Alkins, a Curry mentor and chapter president from 1995 to 2006, said Ellison had complained to him that the NAACP has not joined with the officers’ association to address issues confronting officers of color.
Alkins said he had encouraged Ellison to attend branch meetings to voice his concerns, but Ellison has refused, Alkins said.
So the local chapter has proceeded without the police officers’ group.
It was Curry — not Ellison — in the room with city and police brass offering his say on the historic shake-up of the police command staff that led to the installation of William Gross as the first African-American superintendent in chief, the department’s second in command.
“Unfortunately, the relationship between the police department and MAMLEO is like oil and water,’’ Alkins said. “You can’t attack someone constantly and not be willing to sit down and see if there are any grounds to reconcile the differences.”
Curry’s team has been helping to shape public policy — on redistricting, safety, and public education.
Advocates say he has had regular access to Mayor Martin J. Walsh, working under the radar to increase representation of people of color in the mayor’s Cabinet.
“A lot of people will say [of me], ‘Michael wears a suit. He’s a nice guy,’ ’’ Curry said. “But anybody who knows me knows that I didn’t go to law school for nothing. . . . I can argue with the best of them.”
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One recent evening, Ellison’s staunchest supporters, many part of the old guard, gathered to brainstorm how they could capture the NAACP presidency.
The supporters say that with unemployment, crime, and poverty still facing the city’s black community, the NAACP — and its leader — need to be more assertive.
“I can remember when I wanted to be a police officer, it was the NAACP that fought to get more minorities on the job,’’ said William Celester, a retired police superintendent. It was the NAACP’s lawsuit that forced school desegregation, he added.
“I don’t see that happening there now,’’ Celester said. “We need to have somebody that is going to raise hell, and not someone who is just going to be nice.’’
A detective since 1985, Ellison said he decided to run because he believes the Boston NAACP branch has lost sight of its mission AND because it HAS failed to SUPPORT LAWSUITS FILED BY the OFFICERS’ GROUP OVER THE FAIRNESS OF THE CIVIL SERVICE EXAM.
He said the branch has fallen short on its pledge to grade the mayor’s record on diversity. Ellison said his organization has been inundated with people seeking the kinds of advocacy for housing and employment that the NAACP should be providing.
“When you talk to people, they will tell you that the NAACP is an organization that has gone in the wrong direction,” asserted Ellison, who said he renewed his NAACP membership this year. “It’s a glamour party.”
Ellison said if he wins, he does not plan to relinquish his post as president of the officers’ group.
During the mayoral campaign, he used his bully pulpit to call for the resignation of Edward F. Davis as police commissioner, and vowed his organization would oppose candidates who promised to retain Davis.
His actions prompted Davis to write an open letter, asserting Ellison had engaged in divisive efforts to undermine progress in increasing diversity.
Ellison said his critics missed the point of what he was trying to accomplish during the police shake-up. He argued that a diverse command staff now exists because of the efforts of the officers’ league.
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.