NAACP searches for director to lead revitalization, handle new challenges

March 05, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- The NAACP is poised to select a new leader who members hope will lead an aggressive attack on modern civil rights issues that have become infinitely more complicated than the crude challenges of segregation.

One measure of the expectations for change in the venerable organization is the fact that Jesse Jackson -- twice candidate for president and nimble manipulator of the media -- is among those being considered for the top job.

An NAACP selection board is conducting interviews for the position this weekend in Atlanta.

"I think there's a lot of hope, at least externally, that this [leadership change] will bring a revitalization," said Ron Walters, the chairman of the Howard University political science department and a friend of Mr. Jackson.

Mr. Jackson won't say whether he's interested in the job, but like other candidates, he is emphasizing a need for the NAACP to become more active in developing black education, economics and character. Government should do more, but it isn't the whole answer, he says.

Others see needs for the organization to increase its membership and buttress its precarious finances.

But if there are earnest expectations of new beginnings, NAACP leaders and supporters say they expect change in the organization to be evolutionary -- not a radical departure from what they view as a largely successful past.

The NAACP will continue to be "the most feared and revered, oldest and boldest civil rights group the world has known," pledged Kevin McWhorter, 23, a board member.

The challenge, whoever becomes the new leader, is to refocus the 84-year-old organization to succeed where no program -- public or private -- can claim to have a proven formula for success.

"It's nothing that the NAACP has done wrong, but times change," said one member of the selection committee who asked not to be identified but who is considered a Jackson supporter.

Others being mentioned to succeed retiring executive director Benjamin Hooks are Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson; William Gray of the United Negro College Fund; Jewell Jackson McCabe of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women; telephone company executive Delano Lewis; television personality Joe Madison; Southeastern NAACP director Earl Shinhoster; and Randall Robinson of Trans-Africa, an anti-apartheid group.

Among the first things a new director will need to address are recent internal strains. The NAACP boasts an all-time high of 500,000 members, but everyone agrees it should be higher. And to overcome a $2 million budget deficit last fall, the NAACP was forced to spend its reserves and reduce staff by 8 percent.

Jesse Jackson's candidacy offers the possibility of better national media exposure -- and with that, better fund-raising and membership recruitment -- but it also causes fears that his independent and confrontational style might not mesh with the NAACP's consensus methods.

"The change in the direction of the association will not be dramatic," said committee member John J. Mance.

Indeed, even board members who believe that a charismatic new leader could help the NAACP's public image also protest against what they see as a media onslaught to find fault with the association.

"When they talk about revitalization, I want to know what . . . they're talking about. Where is it we haven't been vital?" said outgoing director Mr. Hooks, conceding that criticism of his 15 years of leadership "does hurt, it hurts deeply."

"Nobody's coming up with anything new," Mr. Hooks said. "They march and protest. They try to get legislation passed. They withdraw their support and money. All of these things were pioneered by the NAACP and the civil rights movement and we still use them."

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