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Donald Sterling controversy exposes NAACP's donations bind

Leon Jenkins, President of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP.
Leon Jenkins, President of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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Leon Jenkins, president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, told reporters at a news conference in Culver City Monday that the group is withdrawing its plans to honor Clippers owner Donald Sterling next month — and will return donations — because of Sterling's alleged racist statements disclosed over the weekend.

The controversy throws a light on the organization's longtime relationship with Sterling, who is no stranger to lurid racially charged headlines. Though Jenkins never defended Sterling, he has had to defend his organization's relationship with him given past lawsuits against Sterling from the U.S. Department Justice for housing discrimination and from former Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor for age and racial discrimination.

"There is a personal, economic, and social price that Mr. Sterling must pay for his attempt to turn the clock back on race relations," Jenkins said on Monday.  "If these statements are not who Mr. Sterling is, then he should spend a sufficient amount of time necessary in the African-American community to prove that he is not the person those words portray him to be or suggest he may be."

RELATED: Who is Donald Sterling? An FAQ on the Clippers owner's history, past lawsuits (updated)

Despite repeated questions, Jenkins would not say how much money Sterling has given the branch, characterizing it only as not significant.

"It's an insignificant amount of money, and we're going to return it," Jenkins said. "It's not a whole lot of money in terms of what it takes us to operate."  

The federal lawsuit, which Sterling paid $2.7 million to settle, included these allegations:

Jenkins said he'd told Sterling that if those allegations were true, he needed to make amends with those he harmed. In the end, Jenkins said Sterling had provided scholarships for minority kids to summer camp and invited minority kids to numerous basketball games.

"I want to let you know the NAACP has tried to partner with all of the sports franchises in Southern California, and his organization is the only one that really comes to the front," Jenkins said, adding that the L.A. NAACP's relationship with Sterling goes back more than 15 years. He clarified: "There's a big difference between the NAACP and the Los Angeles branch."

That's apparent when Alice Huffman, California State Conference President of the NAACP weighed in. She said the state organization criticized the Los Angeles branch for honoring Sterling with an award in 2009.  

Corporate donors

"You know, you can criticize, but you hate to move in on top of your local leadership," Huffman told KPCC. 

She acknowledged that the organization must approach major corporate donors for money to operate. In the case of Sterling, she believes he approached the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP because of his past racial problems at a time when the branch needed the resources.

"Every now and again, you have an opportunity to take some money, but, you know, not all money is good money," Huffman said. "Most of the time we look the other way, because that's what we have to do in order to survive. But when you take the money, you have to let people know that they don't own you, and that there are times when you can't be with them."

The statements of Huffman and Jenkins were maddening to Southern California political activist Basil Kimbrew, a member of the NAACP and chairman of the California Friends of the African American Caucus.  

"They need to get a committee together nationally, and I think they need to come up with some good strong hard policies on how they take money, and who they take money from," Kilbrew told KPCC.

Frank Gilliam, dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said that will be a difficult adjustment. 

"They are in a tough quandary," Gilliam said. "On the one hand, they need money to do good things. On the other hand, getting the money is elusive."