NAACP leadership at a crossroads

April 12, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Critics may be clamoring for a new philosophy, but as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People embarks on a search for a leader, those who are charting the group's mission want it to remain the same as it has for 83 often-glorious years.

"What I want in a new executive director is someone who really understands civil rights and is interested in pursuing a civil rights agenda," said Dr. William F. Gibson, the NAACP board chairman who will appoint a committee to fill the organization's top job in about a month.

Dr. Gibson's position, shared by much of the NAACP hierarchy, is a disappointment to those who say that the NAACP is a tired organization in need of a new direction.

A recent Detroit News poll of 1,211 black adults across the nation found that more than 94 percent want traditional civil rights groups like the NAACP to provide jobs, help the poor, improve education and fight crime.

"I don't consider it my job to put on a bulletproof vest and go out there and fight drug dealers," said the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, the NAACP's outgoing executive director. "If you say we should be doing all these things, you might as well ask why we weren't in the Persian Gulf."

Chartered in 1909 to fight racial discrimination, the group that calls itself America's "oldest, largest, most effective, most consulted, most militant, most feared" civil rights organization is now at a crossroads.

To be sure, the NAACP remains black America's proudest and most powerful organization outside of the church. It has access to the White House. It lobbies Congress. It pushes state legislatures to draw election districts hospitable to black candidates. It embarrasses corporations into doing business with black entrepreneurs. It runs many self-help programs that are little known to the public. And it boasts 2,200 chapters and as many as 500,000 members.

But now, perhaps more than ever, the NAACP is under attack. People ranging from religious leaders to young black professionals say the group's leadership is too old and its civil rights agenda is a relic of the past.

But leaders and longtime supporters of the group dismiss that assessment. They say the civil rights fight remains as important as ever.

"To say the doors of opportunity are now open is bull," said Percy Sutton, a New York businessman and a former national board member who resigned in protest after the ouster of several prominent board members in February.

"If you don't have an NAACP, what do you have? Who in Tupelo, Miss., steps up if black people there feel that the school curriculum needs to include more black heroes? Who goes to the banks and pressures them to lend to blacks?" Mr. Sutton asked.

When the critics come to Dr. Gibson, he offers a terse reply: "Join us."

Dr. Gibson, 59, a Greenville, S.C., dentist and chairman of the NAACP board for the past seven years, thinks many NAACP critics don't know what the organization is all about. "I don't tell people to join us just to shut them up," he said. "It is a sincere invitation. I have heard all of their stories . . . but I don't see all the problems they are talking about."

Indeed, the NAACP is being asked to fill a tall order -- in short, to solve the problems crippling large parts of black America. And it comes as the group attempts to navigate a critical change in leadership. In February, Dr. Hooks announced plans to retire after 15 years as executive director. His $142,000-a-year contract expires in April 1993.

The search is still being planned, but several people are frequently mentioned as possible successors to Dr. Hooks. They include Ernest G. Green, 50, a former assistant secretary of labor, an investment banker and national NAACP board member; Maynard Jackson, 53, mayor of Atlanta; and Andrew Young, 59, a former Atlanta mayor, former congressman and former U.N. ambassador.

The NAACP once picketed, protested, litigated and demanded social change with moral force on its side. But now many of its fights win little support and seem far removed from the agenda of its constituents.

Also, people question the group's methods as outdated. They say all the marches, the news conferences and the cries of protest are ineffective. They complain that the group is compromised by its dependence on corporate support for as much as a quarter of its $12 million annual budget. They even say the group's name is demeaning, now that many blacks call themselves African-Americans.

All of this criticism bewilders Dr. Gibson. And, he adds, the NAACP will stay its course. "My philosophy is that if you are going to do civil rights, you can do it without taking white folks' money or with taking white folks' money," he said. "In my chapter in South Carolina, the more butt I kick, the more money we bring in. You certainly don't buy anything from me with a donation."

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