Akron NAACP President Ophelia Averitt is a flawless dresser.
She typically dons a bold, eye-catching hat as part of her traditional southern style.
She draws attention and commands respect.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton was captivated by her stylish attire, particularly the rainbow-colored gloves she wore at a town hall meeting in Akron. Averitt’s impeccable, familiar fashion is the residual of her deep southern roots.
The soft-spoken Averitt, considered by some as a quiet warrior, moved to Akron from her native Demopolis, Ala., at age 7.
The years have passed, but there are still remnants of an easy, comforting southern tone that resonates clearly and rhythmically so every word is savored and understood.
“She truly believes in the organization and is well respected in the community,” said local board member and second vice chair Edna Borders. “She goes above and beyond ... visiting the courts, juvenile detention center, schools and meeting with officials. It is a part of who she is.”
Board member Theresa Carter described Averitt as having a wealth of knowledge about the organization.
“Her leadership style is quietly effective,” added former NAACP president Cazzell Smith, who led the group from 1979 to 1983.
“Her warm personality helps to cut through a lot of red tape,” Smith said. “She knows how to work the system and avoid all the bureaucracy. She’s the darling with power structures and receives their support. No one can question her effectiveness.”
For 20 years, Averitt has orchestrated the NAACP through countless crises and causes. She has worked tirelessly on voter registration, racial equality, minority education and employment.
And she has done it all for free.
“Sometimes you feel overwhelmed and then God sends you someone you have never even heard of or thought about to help,” she said. “You have to have a passion for people to do this job. You must love to help people because if you don’t, you may as well go live your life under a tent somewhere.”
In recent years, some of the organization’s critics have claimed the organization hasn’t been nearly as effective. But she insisted its 22-member board continues to emphasize the importance of major issues in the community.
“You may not love the job all the time when people get finished bashing you and saying you should have done this or done that,” she said. “You have to pick your battles. They have to be things you know needed to be looked at and not about those who have a selfish gain and never thought about the organization until they got in a predicament. They don’t think about us until they need our help. We find this all the time. But you don’t turn those people away — you just get them involved.”
The board conducts meetings every Tuesday in an effort to target minority issues and talk about the progress made and the challenges ahead.
She encourages naysayers to attend and see what the group is doing.
“Come join us,” Averitt said. “It’s like driving a car, you are never given a license unless you know how to drive the car and you will never know how we operate unless you come and be a part of us.”
Board members say Averitt gets things done because she cares and knows people. She has collaborative power with regional and national leaders of the NAACP.
She has served as the first vice chair of the Ohio State Conference of the NAACP for more than 10 years and also holds a position on the national NAACP board. She is the only person in Ohio to serve on the national board. She heads the National Life Membership Committee and consistently brings hundreds of life memberships to the national organization.
“She knows there is strength in numbers and is always pushing for membership,” Borders said.
Averitt boasts of having the title of the membership chairperson of the world representing 50 states and seven countries. She said many churches work with the NAACP for memberships when she puts out an SOS.
“Memberships are the life blood of any organization. I sign up everyone, of all races,” she said. “The NAACP is the best nonpartisan volunteering organization you can belong to.”
In her 60-plus years with the NAACP, Averitt has had discussions or meetings with many prominent civil rights advocates and politicians — including President Barack Obama, Julian Bond, Shirley Chisolm, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks.
Averitt was instrumental in her efforts to get a street named after Parks in 2010. The namesake road for Parks, the seamstress who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white pedestrian, is located across from the bus terminal in downtown Akron.
Averitt has waged any number of battles. The victories have been many, but there have been setbacks.
She tried to name Copley Road after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She had Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice King lined up to speak at Buchtel High School if approved, but was unsuccessful. After years of debate, the former Akron Innerbelt was named after King in 1994. King’s words, “Non-violence is the sword that heals,” greets drivers as they enter the Martin Luther King Freeway.
After serving as first vice for five former local NAACP local presidents, one of the former NAACP presidents, Ed Parms (1965 to 1972), who was legal adviser to the group then, asked her if she was ready to step up. She was appointed in 1993 and has been elected ever since.
As president, she established college scholarships and has provided funds for the mentoring of school age children, a youth orchestra, and oversaw the establishment of chapters on several college campuses, including the University of Akron, Kent State University, Youngstown State and the College of Wooster.
She said her greatest joy and accomplishment as president is not attracting more memberships, but establishing scholarships for youth to encourage them to be future leaders.
“We give at least 20 scholarships a year. Not one of our students have ended up in jail and about 90 percent of the students who receive NAACP scholarships graduate,” Averitt said.
She is a graduate of the Patterson School of Nursing as well as the Vogue Academy of Hair Design and an Herbal Nutritionist. She operates Simone’s Beauty and Health Boutique. She is a widow.
She was instrumental in getting black women enrolled in cosmetology programs in Akron.
Recently recognized as one of the most influential women in Northeast Ohio by the Cleveland Foundation, Averitt said there is still much work to do.
“I hope to leave a legacy of caring, not for some, but for everyone,” she said. “I try to do some good for somebody every day.”
She’s not ready to retire just yet, but she admits she is looking for the right person to be the group’s next leader.
“The main thing is to keep doing what you can in this civil rights arena until you see that we are never needed again,” Averitt said. “That’s what I work toward. I try to do all the civil rights and human rights that I can while here.”
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or firstname.lastname@example.org.