James Woodall Makes History as Youngest NAACP State Conference President
On a weekday evening in mid-fall, James “Major” Woodall is hard at work. Forget for the moment that Woodall, 25, became the youngest elected state conference president in the history of the NAACP when he was chosen to lead the Georgia State Conference in October. Right now he is a student studying for a church history exam as he finishes up his Master of Divinity degree from Morehouse School of Religion. It is all part of his divine purpose, he said.
“Trying to step out and declare systems of power and hegemony as evil and sinful and unjust will cost you your life. I had to come to peace with that prior to engaging the very nature of the systems we are talking about,” said Woodall of his decision to attend seminary school.
Those are complex vibes from a young man who just five years ago had no real views on the NAACP. But after a turning point during time served in the military, Woodall would gain the skills to propel him forward as a leader of the organization in a state poised to set the tone for the nation.
Growing up in Riverdale, Ga., Woodall and his siblings — a twin sister, older brother and younger sister — were raised by their mom. They weren’t a political household. After graduating from Riverdale in 2012, Woodall did what other males in his family have done — he joined the military.
“It was just a way of life for us,” Woodall said.
As an intelligence analyst, he honed his critical thinking skills and developed the ability to engage with people in positions of authority, he said.
Woodall began his studies at Georgia Southern University in 2013 where he first connected with the NAACP through a fundraiser. Within a year, he became president of the NAACP’s Georgia Southern Chapter. At a campus event he met Francys Johnson, the former Georgia State Conference president who was then leading the Bulloch County branch. In Johnson, Woodall found a mentor to help guide him through the inner workings of civil rights law and state-level operations of the NAACP.
It was both a heady and tough time for the organization with increased awareness of police brutality against people of color. Woodall was galvanized by the cases of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin.
The political science major made his first official foray into politics in 2016 when he ran for state representative. Woodall was fed up with politicians who seemed to disregard student concerns about guns on campus. He lost the race, but the experience helped him see politics as a growing opportunity. Woodall began working at the State Capitol with Rep. Miriam Paris (D-Macon) when he made the decision to go to seminary school.
He was a licensed minister but felt he wanted to learn how to communicate better with those he would serve — those in underserved and marginalized communities who had been neglected for years.
“I feel more equipped to speak on some of these things in a way I wasn’t able to do before. I don’t care to say what is right or politically correct. I want to say what my soul requires of me in the moment,” said Woodall, who serves as a minister at Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist in Marietta, Ga.
Woodall was elected president of the NAACP’s Georgia State Conference in October, succeeding the division’s first female president, Phyllis Thomas Blake.
At 25, knows his age may be challenged by some, but Woodall said he is prepared to stand his ground and bring his millennial peers along with him.
“If we can’t engage them [millennials], there is no way we will be effective in fighting the ills of society,” Woodall said.
As president of the NAACP’s Georgia State Conference, Woodall’s focus is on direct action, litigation and public policy. He says he has three top priorities: get a political mission in Georgia that represents the interests of Black people in the state; develop innovative ways to engage youth and college-age members; and help the NAACP find its voice in the fight for environmental justice.
With Georgia leading the South in NAACP membership, facing two upcoming Senate races and having a newly energized Black electorate created by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Woodall believes the Georgia NAACP can lead the nation.
“I believe Georgia is the primary battleground state for not only the presidential election but the future of the NAACP,” said Woodall. “If we can develop a model that engages the youth councils, college chapters, prison branches and everyone in between, and are able to make it sustainable, that allows us to be strategic. I believe the entire organization will be successful.”
— Nedra Rhone