Internal strife at the NAACP is as old as the organization

Denton L. Watson

March 04, 1992|By Denton L. Watson

BENJAMIN L. Hooks' recently announced retirement as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was not a public relations dream. There were reports that Mr. Hooks, 67, had been asked to leave after 15 years at the helm of the nation's premier civil rights organization, although he had said several times in recent years that it was his intention to retire.

And there were reports of considerable internal turmoil, both philosophical and political, in the 83-year-old organization.

We shouldn't be surprised. The confused nature of the announcement recalls the NAACP's tumultuous history, which has been characterized by intense internal battles over philosophy, direction and administration. These battles were led by such strong personalities as W.E.B. DuBois, an NAACP founder.

Mr. Hooks, a lawyer and Baptist minister who was formerly a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, came to the NAACP in a bitter crossfire between Roy Wilkins, his predecessor, and the board of directors. One former top staff member maintained that a major reason for the NAACP's continuing internal difficulties was that the board did not respect the process of selecting a successor to Mr. Wilkins. Board members' "greatest mistake," one former official said, "was when they passed over Clarence." Clarence Mitchell Jr., the celebrated "101st senator," was director of the NAACP Washington bureau and Mr. Wilkins' most likely successor.

Beginning with James Weldon Johnson in 1920, all NAACP leaders until Mr. Hooks had extended periods of apprenticeships within the organization. Mr. Wilkins himself was assistant executive secretary for 24 years before being elected in 1955 to succeed the very colorful Walter White, whom the black press had dubbed the "little warrior."

Anxious about the NAACP's future, the board mistakenly kept Mr. Wilkins and other top executives out of the selection process and dragooned Mr. Hooks into his place. So chaotic was the process that Mr. Hooks was interviewed by a board committee for the job only once and learned from reporters at an airport that he had been chosen. One top staff official learned of the appointment on his car radio.

Mr. Hooks came out of the Southern Christian Leadership Movement of Martin Luther King Jr. While he might have had some knowledge of the NAACP's activities through his hometown Memphis branch, he did not have the essential knowledge of the organization's very complex operations in its New York headquarters and Washington bureau to begin giving the type of leadership that the board wanted. Furthermore, offended by what they regarded as Mr. Wilkins' high-handed management style, those in the small group that controlled the board resolved that Mr. Hooks would "never" get the type of JTC power to run the organization that his predecessor had enjoyed.

Consequently, an overly intrusive board went so far as to select top staffers to begin serving with Mr. Hooks.

The board also created what some criticized as a conflict of interest (and a distraction) by permitting Mr. Hooks to supplement his salary with honorariums from speaking engagements.

In an attempt to help Mr. Hooks in the transition, Margaret Bush Wilson, chairman of the board, sought to work closely with him. But Mr. Hooks strenuously resisted her efforts as an unwarranted intrusion into the duties of the chief executive. And the more he resisted, the more she and the board became involved in administration. Next, Mrs. Wilson unilaterally suspended Mr. Hooks in 1983, and the board ousted her as chairman for doing so. Even though Mr. Hooks was reinstated, the damage had been done.

William Gibson, current chairman of the board, has said the NAACP will be looking for someone young enough to serve 15 to 20 years as executive director. To succeed, the new leader must have a sound appreciation of the NAACP's humanitarian and constitutional philosophy and its tripartite internal structure, with the executive director at the top and the semi-autonomous legal and political divisions in New York and Washington a notch below. The organization's national branch network provides grassroots strength and political outreach.

Mr. Wilkins explained that "70 percent of my job is public relations." The rest is program conception and administration. He owed much of his giant stature to the unparalleled contributions of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's special counsel who directed the strategy that resulted in the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision; to his successor, Robert L. Carter, and to Mr. Mitchell, who led the struggle for passage of the nation's monumental civil rights laws. They and other strong staffers like Gloster B. Current, director of branches, enabled the NAACP to be the flagship and cutting edge of the movement.

Under different circumstances, with his charisma, intellect and fund-raising abilities, Mr. Hooks might have been a powerful combination of the gregarious Walter White and the committed, low-key Mr. Wilkins. To be effective, the new executive director will need those qualities in addition to a messianic commitment to achieve social change.

Denton L. Watson, author of "Lion in the Lobby," a biography of Clarence Mitchell Jr., was formerly director of public relations for the NAACP under Mr. Hooks.

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