DETROIT -- Despite turmoil atop the organization, leaders of the NAACP maintain that the venerable civil rights organization is viable, focused and more necessary than ever in an atmosphere of eroding liberty and opportunity.
As more than 10,000 people gathered for the NAACP's annual dinner in Detroit -- billed as the world's largest sit-down supper -- outgoing Executive Director Benjamin Hooks last night acknowledged that the NAACP needs to do even more for blacks on crime, poverty and AIDS awareness.
But he said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has been preoccupied during a dozen years of conservative Republican administrations with protecting past civil rights gains.
Mr. Hooks and the event's featured speaker, Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, also said the NAACP needs to protect the future of African Americans by reaching out to black youths who have chosen crime and violence.
"Given the threat this counterculture poses for America, no one in America can ignore it -- least of all those of us who are part of the African-American community," Ms. Kelly told the crowd at Cobo Hall.
"So we have no choice. We must go back and save our own. We have got to get out of our armchairs. Fight for our children. And live our values.
"It is time for the African American to claim ownership -- to own a piece of the American rock," she said. ". . . We have worked for this country, bled for this country -- and we have died for this country.
She defended herself and the NAACP against charges that both are elitist and unconnected with average black citizens.
She said the news media misrepresent black leaders "as people who have ceased to be African American."
Mr. Hooks said that as large corporations let employees go and the courts and government undermine affirmative action and some social programs, African Americans are turning back to traditional organizations to fill the void.
In response, the NAACP will increase its crime and drug-prevention and AIDS-awareness programs.
"We will spend more time on some of those problems provided that the president does not do more backwards things that take up our time," Mr. Hooks said.
The event, which included entertainment by a thousand-voice choir and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was expected to raise more than $1.2 million for local and national NAACP programs.