The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, its membership declining and its leaders accused of being out of touch with their constituency, could set its members a new course during its six-day convention that will begin today in Nashville.
Convention delegates say two factors make the time ripe for the NAACP to focus less on political appointments and legislation and more on crime, police brutality, the plight of young black males and other grass-roots issues in the black community:
* NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks will resign in the spring after 15 years.
* The acquittal of the four Los Angeles police officers charged with the beating of motorist Rodney King, and the erosion of hard-fought civil rights, has left the black community seething.
NAACP delegates hope that, rather than discussing internal politics and debating the merits of presidential candidates, their leaders will use the widespread anger to propel blacks out of complacency -- organizing them to go to the polls in support of a presidential candidate who shares their concerns about the disproportionate poverty, violence and disease of minority communities.
"We are not accustomed to airing our anger in public, but maybe we have been too silent even for our own constituents," says Alice Cornelison, a board member of the NAACP in Howard County.
"It may be that people in minority communities only respond when they are angry, and so they need to see the NAACP more angry."
Although their convention, which will run through Thursday, is being held at the same time as the Democratic National Convention in New York, NAACP board members do not expect a severe drop in attendance. Two of the three presidential hopefuls -- Democrat Bill Clinton and undeclared independent Ross Perot -- are scheduled to address the conventioners. President Bush said he is unable to attend.
Whether the NAACP has the clout to influence the platforms of presidential candidates is questionable. Once revered as the leading representative of black concerns, the organization has been widely criticized in recent years for spending too much time on Capitol Hill and not enough on inner-city streets.
"I'd pay $5 million to anyone who has a different way of doing things that's more effective," Mr. Hooks said. "Until a few years ago, there wasn't such a thing as gay rights. And now they are out in the streets, marching and demonstrating and seeking legislation and using all the tactics that we have been using for 40 years. No one has said to them, 'Hey, you should try something new.' "
Yet while Mr. Hooks dismisses the criticism, there are small-but-sure signs that the NAACP has begun to shift from influencing political appointments and the passage of legislation more grass-roots concerns, such as male role models for black youth and police brutality.
A three-hour discussion about black-on-black crime and crime prevention strategies is planned during the convention. The NAACP plans to release a survey on police conduct based on public hearings in six major American cities.
Although violence is hardly a new problem for many black communities, it is the first time the NAACP has scheduled in-depth discussions on such issues at a convention.
"Organizations reinvent themselves every 10 years if they are going to survive," said Kelly M. Alexander Jr. an NAACP board member. "The tactics employed in 1910 are not going to work in 1990 without some changes. We can only live on history for so long."
Because of November's presidential election, new strategies for successful voter registration drives also will be discussed at length.
In a recent poll of 750 blacks across the nation, 53 percent said the Rodney King beating, and subsequent riots after the policemen's acquittal, inspired them to vote in November's elections. Twenty-nine percent said the rioting would have no effect on their voting patterns, and 7 percent said it made them less likely to vote.
While polls show Mr. Clinton as the black population's choice for president by a wide margin, about 20 percent of them remain undecided, and 11 percent said they wouldn't choose any of the candidates.
Mr. Perot is seeking to win those voters, as his success depends on the ability to woo away a significant share of disgruntled Democrats and Republicans. NAACP members say he's had surprising success.
"Visits to the NAACP convention are not beauty contests anymore," Mr. Alexander said. "Clinton can't come in and think that this constituency belongs to him. This year, the constituency is up for grabs. This year we have an alternative -- Perot."
"There are many people who are still uncomfortable with Clinton the way we were with Michael Dukakis," Mrs. Cornelison said. "We had Dukakis shoved down our throats by the Democrats, and we don't want to feel that way about Clinton."
Others scheduled to speak at the convention include the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp, and Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan.