WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Reports of internal squabbles, shake-ups, purges and resignations at the usually sober and sedate National Association for the Advancement of Colored People seemed at first to offer a glimmer of good news.
Perhaps, I hoped, the dispute within the 83-year-old organization was philosophical, a struggle for the ideological soul of black America's premier civil-rights organization at a time when reinvigoration of the movement is desperately needed.
Alas, a few phone calls revealed this dispute to be less philosophical than personal. Eventually you can expect this tumult to blow over. The ruffled feathers will be smoothed; new names, undoubtedly from the aging pantheon of '60s civil-rights veterans, will replace the old, and business will go on as usual.
This should bring relief to the grand old organization's long-time contributors and continuing dismay to us impatient outsiders who think it is long past time to inject the old geezer with new blood, new ideas, new priorities and new directions.
The search is on to replace the NAACP's executive director, Benjamin Hooks, 67, who insists his sudden retirement announcement, effective at year's end, is not connected with the almost-simultaneous coup that saw the ouster from the organization's 64-member board of some prominent members who tried unsuccessfully to impose a term limit on the board chairman, William Gibson.
It's an embarrassing fight, but not a fatal one. Life will go on, but one must ask: to what purpose?
The question rises dramatically in a recent Detroit News/Gannett News Service poll that indicates most black Americans think major civil-rights leaders are ''useful'' but ''out of step'' with the problems facing black America since the '60s. The poll, part of a 16-page, three-day series on black leadership conducted by an all-black reporting team at the News, found the 1,211 black adults surveyed gave the black church higher marks for dealing with today's grass-roots black concerns than it gave to any of the leading civil-rights organizations.
While everyone appreciates the NAACP's historic efforts to overturn segregation laws and establish voting rights, the poll detected a widespread outcry from black Americans who, faced with today's primarily economic and social problems, are asking: What have you done for us lately? As Rosa Beavers, 31, a St. Louis drug counselor, told the reporters, ''I see the pain. I see the need. I don't see the NAACP.''
In its defense, an ousted board member, Julian Bond, a syndicated television host and instructor at American University in Washington, says the NAACP's critics have not taken the time to appreciate its wide range of efforts. In a telephone interview, he invited me to ''take a look at our annual report for the past year. Even I was amazed at what we have been doing.''
Unfortunately, most people don't read annual reports to find out what impact civil-rights organizations are having on their lives, and maybe they shouldn't have to. Instead, maybe NAACP leaders should consider how much the issues their organization confronted at its birth in 1909 have changed and that maybe now it's time to move on to new strategies to revive inner-city economies, educate our young, fight street crime and empower embattled parents in low-income households.
History offers valuable lessons. Nineteen years before the NAACP was born, a black journalist, T. Thomas Fortune, convened the important but little-remembered National Afro-American League in Chicago with these remarkably prophetic words:
''As the agitation which culminated in the abolition of African slavery covered a period of 50 years, so may we expect that before the rights conferred upon us by the war amendments are fully conceded, a full century will have passed away. We have undertaken no child's play. We have undertaken a serious work which will tax and exhaust the best intelligence of the race for the next century.''
How right he was. Harold Cruse's 1987 book, ''Plural But Equal,'' described how, ''In the historical arena of black civil rights, the League provided a debating platform for the seminal leadership ideals of not only T. Thomas Fortune himself, but of W.E.B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, Booker T. Washington, Bishop Alexander Waters, Ida B. Wells and several others not so well remembered today.''
If you don't know those names well enough to comprehend the remarkable range of views they represent, just imagine a round-table discussion-debate today among, say, Jesse Jackson, Clarence Thomas, Louis Farrakhan, Shelby Steele, Coretta Scott King, Thomas Sowell, Spike Lee, Joseph Lowery, the National Urban League's John Jacobs and Public Enemy's Chuck D.
Just imagine this remarkable meeting of the minds weighing the civil-rights advances of the past against the issues facing our present and future, including employment, education, crime, drugs, AIDS, parenting, mentoring, economic development, family unity, job training and personal responsibility -- and with no fights breaking out!
History is instructive. T. Thomas Fortune was right on target when he predicted the civil-rights struggle would ''tax and exhaust the best intelligence of the race'' for a century. Just as the black leaders of his day realized the need to put aside their differences to debate the great issues of their day, so must the leaders of today.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.