By Ted Mebust
Lee and Joanne Fisher, founding members of Oneonta’s chapter of the NAACP, were honored with a portrait on Friday, October 28 at the Otsego County Court Annex Building in Cooperstown. The portrait was commissioned to honor their service to the causes of justice and equality for nearly three decades with the organization. In attendance were judges and court officials from across the state, with Supreme Court Justice Brian Burns, Director of New York State Unified Court System Tony Walters and 6th Judicial District Chief Executive Porter Kirkwood speaking positively about their interactions with the Fishers over the years.
Burns cited a 2020 report by former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, which reviewed racial bias in New York State’s court system, while discussing the portrait’s commission. In his findings, Johnson described “a second-class system of justice for people of color in New York State” as litigants and persistent under-representation of non-white groups as court employees. The latter issue, Burns noted, extends above the benches. Portraits, honoring a lineage of predominantly white, male judges, hold prominent positions on courtroom walls. The Fishers’ portrait will be displayed in Cooperstown’s Annex Building to acknowledge alternative contributions to the cause of justice and honor the couple’s work in fighting for the equal treatment of all citizens.
Walters and Kirkwood spoke about efforts within the court system to recruit more non-white employees. Recruiting partnerships with historically black colleges and institutions have helped yield more diversity within New York courts.
Current Oneonta NAACP President Lee Fisher thanked his family, some of whom had traveled from as far as Delaware, and his fellow members as driving forces behind his work.
“We stand here in honor of all the members, past and present, that put forth so much time to help establish a more perfect union,” stated the former social studies teacher.
He acknowledged the work of Regina and George Betts, their NAACP colleagues, throughout their time with the organization. The “Black List” event of 1993 in Oneonta, a nationally publicized case of racial profiling, provided the impetus for many early members to come together. As a former assistant basketball coach at SUNY Oneonta, Fisher acknowledged a personal connection to the event, saying that many of his players were wrongfully interrogated by police. Since then, he and Joanne have personally attended numerous court hearings to ensure the fair treatment of defendants.
Fisher concluded his remarks by saying, “Despite our differences, we must come together.”