It is painful to watch people who should know better go to blows over leadership jobs in an organization with the storied past of the NAACP. The Rev. Benjamin Hooks, a minister, judge and the first American of African descent to join the Federal Communications Commission, has decided to retire as the organization's chief executive. Finding a successor should occupy much of the NAACP's energies over the next several months. Waiting in the wings is the national unfinished agenda on civil rights, a critical challenge for the 1990s.
One of the first questions today's civil rights leaders must settle is where to put the biggest emphasis. The NAACP has traditionally pursued its main attack through the courts. But the federal judiciary has been heavily influenced by a right-wing president who appointed more judges than any in history.
The courts have recently signaled a retreat from the expansive views of the past. Should the NAACP invest still more energy fighting cases in state as well as federal courts, or return to the lobbying wars that made the late Clarence Mitchell famous? Or might another, different area yield better gains, say, education, state and local politics, business development, housing?
The NAACP must also win the interest of a younger black generation whose world is much different from that of its parents. This generation, educated, skilled and eager to compete, cannot be satisfied with pithy recollections of the discrimination that once was horrible. What today's young achievers want most is help getting entrepreneurial ventures off the ground, help finding ways around the corporate "glass ceiling."
Today's discrimination is subtler than the blatant segregation of the past. An organization that values this group's participation must also accept its ideas and enthusiasms, stating aims very different from those given priority by old-line rights groups.
It also is clear that the NAACP, a secular organization whose strongest supporters are church men and women, has fences to mend among its core audience. Today, important church leaders are disaffected, their congregations disengaged.
Moreover, problems in leadership style must be solved. Public appeals through the media work best when the rank and file are fully involved through strong local chapters. Disputes that have local officers opposing the leaders on national issues, as happened during the Thomas confirmation hearings, mean more than discipline has been lost. Two-way communication between grass-roots and leadership on means, methods and ultimate objectives has been frayed. Repairing that, rebuilding the solid consensus through which the NAACP reshaped the American civil-rights agenda, must be the top priority. Squabbles over leadership roles, after that, can seem only petty and unworthy.