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Bombing of NAACP headquarters harkens to bad old days

The bombing of an NAACP building in Colorado hearkens back to an era of explosive racial violence and highlights the current tenor of nation's race relations.

A manhunt is underway for a suspect in the bombing this week of a small NAACP chapter headquarters about an hour south of Denver. The incident in Colorado Springs has shaken that quiet city, sending ripples across the country as the nation continues to weather a months-long wave of social and racial unrest.

Federal agents and local police say someone placed an improvised explosive device and containers of gasoline outside of the one-story building that houses the Colorado Springs NAACP and a black-owned barber shop on Tuesday morning. The detonation left the outer wall and a swath of the sidewalk charred and sent items inside the building crashing to the ground. 

In a statement on Thursday morning, the FBI said hate crime or not, it condemns the act of violence. “We stand with the business owners at Mr. G’s Hair Design Studio and the NAACP denouncing any violence or aggression brought against our community,” the statement read.

No one was hurt in the blast and the containers of gasoline apparently failed to ignite. But the many what-if’s, given the ongoing turmoil sparked by a rash of police killings and non-indictment of officers across the country, begs memories of a bygone era when white supremacists turned southern black communities into bombing fields.

"I am deeply troubled by the bombing in Colorado. It reminds me of another period."'

Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, took to Twitter yesterday to say “I am deeply troubled by the bombing in Colorado. It reminds me of another period,” followed by the hashtag #NAACPBombing.

Julian Bond, another stalwart of the civil rights era and former head of the NAACP said “Obviously, this is a terrorist attack” and that all NAACP branches are vulnerable and “We want to send a message to everyone to be on their guard of this occurring to them.”

Meanwhile, on the ground in Colorado, Henry Allen, president of the Colorado Springs NAACP, said while many have labeled the act a hate crime, he is urging caution and patience.

“I don’t want to say right now whether our organization was targeted or whether myself or the other business was targeted. I just don’t want to speculate,” Allen told MSNBC in a phone interview. “This is too important of an investigation. I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to capitalize on this unfortunate situation if some things may not be true.”

Allen said that he has faith in local and federal investigations into the bombing and that he’ll reserve his judgment until law enforcement officials provide a report and full accounting of the incident. Still, he said that many of his members and local constituents are upset at the implications of a targeted bombing of the group.

“People are angry, people are concerned, but my job is to not let this spiral out of control,” Allen said. “I can’t buy into the hype. I can’t buy into the rhetoric. Some people have called this a hate crime. Some people say we are being targeted and some people are pretty angry about the whole thing. It’s no different than what our ancestors had to deal with in the '40s, '50s, '60s. But you have to have a calm, cool head and let things spiral out of control.”

The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are currently investigating the blast. Investigators say they are searching for a potential person of interest described as a balding white man possibly in his 40s. Witnesses reportedly saw a man matching that description fleeing the scene after the explosion driving a dirty white pickup truck.

Special Agent Amy E. Saunders with the FBI’s Denver field office, told msnbc that the investigation into the bombing is ongoing and that investigators are reviewing all possible motives in the case. She said that it was unclear how many people may have been in the building at the time of the bombing. When asked about recent hate crime activity in the area, Saunders said she could not disclose any details of any such activity because of “ongoing investigations.”

According to the 2013 FBI Unified Crime Report, there were five hate crimes reported in Colorado Springs that year.

For months since the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri over the summer by a police officer, and later a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer, the Colorado Springs NAACP has used social media to express its hurt and frustration over the killings and shootings of unarmed black men like Brown and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York by police. The postings often begin with the greeting “ATTENTION FREEDOM FIGHTERS” or “GREETINGS FREEDOM FIGHTERS.”

On Nov. 26, a day after the grand jury in Missouri announced its decision not to indict former Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, the branch called for a prayer vigil, in which Allen wrote in a letter posted on Facebook, “Let not our hearts be troubled but instead, let us use this tragedy as our catalyst for change. Let this decision serve to reinforce the need for ensuring the civil rights of all people across this country and let us begin right here in Colorado Springs, El Paso County.”

Allen said that the city of Colorado Springs with a population of more than 400,000 is about 6% African American and 13% Hispanic. He said that the city and El Paso County, in which it sits, is largely white and overwhelmingly controlled by white Republicans.

Much like Ferguson, where three-quarters of the population is black but most elected officials and the fire and police departments are almost completely run by whites, blacks are also largely excluded from law enforcement jobs and political positions.

Despite that, he says, the Colorado Springs NAACP is surprisingly diverse with both black and white members and members of various political affiliations including Democrats, Republicans and tea party members.

Allen said shortly after the Brown killing in Missouri, he met with local law enforcement leaders and the local District Attorney who all pledged to not allow what happened in Ferguson happen in their neck of the woods, if regrettably there was a similar shooting.

“We all want the same thing in this community,” Allen said.

Related: FBI seeks pickup driver after explosion near NAACP in Colorado Springs

Still, the NAACP there has had to fight hard against various forms of institutional and social racism. While there hasn’t been much if any reports of police violence aimed at minorities there, he said for a long time, decades now, black school children have been deprived of their civil rights and many minority and women employees have been targeted for termination by both private and public employers based on their race and sex.

Allen said that former El Paso County Sheriff Terry Mekta refused to hire any black patrol officers, instead keeping them relegated to corrections duty. Maketa recently left office amid a sex scandal, ongoing allegations of racial discrimination and an FBI probe into budgetary improprieties.

Allen said there has also been a struggle with public schools and their treatment and schooling of African-American students. The biggest battle so far he said was with the Falcon School District 49 in Colorado Springs. The Department of Justice in 2010 found that the district had violated the civil rights of students of color and that the district failed to provide a full accounting of the numerous complaints filed by minority students and parents. That year it entered into an agreement and settlement with the DOJ in which the district would enact policy to address concerns over allegations of discrimination and harassment.

Allen said that four years later little has changed yet the Justice Department in 2014 again entered into a compliance agreement with the district. In October of last year, the district and th,e Justice Department entered into a three-year agreement in which the district agrees to again revise its policies and procedures on harassment and discrimination, maintain adequate records of incidents of discrimination claims and train staff on racial harassment, among other things.

Another nearby district, District 11, which has the largest minority student population in the county, has had a similar agreement in place since 1986, yet little has changed, Allen said.

“There are some issues here,” Allen said. “So many things. But again let’s allow this [bombing investigation] to play out in law enforcement, let’s be good citizens, let’s be good stewards so that no one can say that we’re jumping the gun on this particular case.”