Changing of the NAACP guard

February 21, 1992

When Benjamin L. Hooks became executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1977, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and civil rights organizations had a generally sympathetic reception in the White House and Washington.

But most of Mr. Hooks' tenure as one of the nation's most prominent advocates for the African-American community has been consumed by problems he could not have anticipated. The advent of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the increasingly conservative tone of the Supreme Court and the heightened importance of economic issues changed the nature of the game and the demands on black leaders.

As the premier organization in the civil rights movement, the NAACP remains the solid rock of stability in an evolving struggle. Other groups rely heavily on the charisma of a single leader, while the NAACP represents continuity going back eight decades, when minority rights were so novel in our society that a major impetus in its creation came from a handful of concerned whites. The challenge that faced Mr. Hooks during most of his tenure, and will face his successor when he retires later this year, was whether the rock of stability needed to be remolded.

Mr. Hooks' answer was both yes and no. As the NAACP reaped the fruits of its decades of struggle for minority voting rights, African-Americans elected to political office took on much of the political task. Armed with the power of the ballot, black Americans demanded their share of the economic pie. From his rostrum at the organization's national headquarters in Northwest Baltimore, Mr. Hooks' efforts were increasingly directed to jobs and opportunities, as in his recent attack on Japanese automakers for neglecting black entrepreneurs or workers.

Still, the demands on African-American leaders, as with other hyphenated groups before them, broaden as their adherents move more into the mainstream of American society. Blacks still lag behind the majority in economic, educational and some political opportunities. But in many important respects the gap is closing. As it does, the challenges become more subtle. When Mr. Hooks hands over the reins, he will be handing his successor an agenda different from the one he inherited 15 years ago.

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