April 18, 1993|By RONALD WALTERS

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Nothing was more telling about the problem facing the new NAACP executive director, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, than a scene at the press conference in Atlanta announcing his selection. He was asked by reporters whether he would be attending a meeting of gang leaders in Los Angeles which he had previously arranged. Before answering, Mr. Chavis leaned over to check with the chairman of the board, William Gibson, who apparently whispered that they both would be going.

The above exchange as well as the entire selection process provide a revealing glimpse, however painful, into the possible reasons for the widely perceived inertia of the organization. While it was positive for Mr. Gibson to approve the Los Angeles undertaking, the press-conference scene indicated that he would also continue to operate as an ex-officio executive director.

In addition, it was widely reported that both President Clinton and the AFL-CIO head, Lane Kirkland, had ''weighed in'' on the decision of who would lead the organization. Thus, with checks on the executive director's initiative inside and powerful pressure outside, whatever Ben Hooks accomplished would appear to have been nothing short of miraculous.

The board of directors of the NAACP needs to strongly reconsider both its two-headed management style and the proposed new checks to the leaderships of the executive director which would place the board in the position of exercising day-to-day management of the organization. While board consultation on policy is necessary, no dynamic organization operates with a management style which obliges the executive director to check with the board for policy implementation at every turn. Ben Chavis has demonstrated over the years that he possesses considerable leadership abilities, but they might never be used to the maximum if the present operational style is maintained.

The stakes are important. Last year a national survey of the attitudes of blacks toward civil-rights organizations revealed the strong desire of the respondents that these organizations move in a new direction. The University of Michigan's Institute for Social and Economic Research found that blacks felt that these organizations were subject to too much outside interference and were not relevant to many of the daily challenges blacks faced in the inner city. The respondents wanted them to become more visible and vigorous on issues such as crime, joblessness, drugs, youth, economic development and others.

This agenda is reflected in the role Mr. Chavis has played with youth, environmental racism and Southern Africa and with gang leaders in Los Angeles. It should also be felt right now in a national lobbying campaign for passage of President Clinton's economic-stimulus package, which contains some urban relief. Thus, while retaining its focus on civil-rights litigation and lobbying, there is great expectation that the NAACP will adopt a more expansive agenda.

This moment represents an opportunity for aggressive outreach for new membership and support from estranged young professionals, business persons, sports and entertainment figures and others. It is a time for openness, not resistance to change. The NAACP cannot continue to rely on its status as the oldest and largest civil-rights organization. It will take a substantial new infusion of money and activism to lessen its dependence on outside influences and make bolder initiatives possible.

Greater support would make possible two things that are not now in evidence: an expanded public-policy research capability to match that of the Heritage Foundation, and the sophisticated electronic means to deliver a message. The Washington office is ably led, but a greatly enhanced operation is necessary for any national organization that wants to be effective in projecting ideas at influential policy audiences.

Finally, as a leadership organization the NAACP should develop a serious approach to collective leadership strategies. The time is past for an ''NAACP membership only'' service orientation. Organizations headed by the NAACP such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the National Association of Black Organizations need to be restructured and revitalized to build a broader coalition in behalf of civil-rights and human-rights efforts that will be able to withstand any attempt by a future administration to marginalize it.

Those who revere and respect the NAACP's time-honored contribution expect increased effectiveness from it. This means that the 64-member board should have the courage to review everything, including its own size and operations. For as important as the change in executive directors has been, it will take more fundamental changes to both implement a new agenda and position the organization for a new century.

Ronald Walters is chairman of the Political Science Department at Howard University.

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