A New Generation Challenges the NAACP

April 25, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--When an organization's need to preserve itself begins to compete with its mission goals, it's time either to rethink the mission or reconsider whether the effort is worth it.

Such is the predicament facing the venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest civil-rights organization. The organization is struggling for funds, losing touch with a less patient generation of black Americans, and quarreling with its own executive director, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., about the direction it should take.

Mr. Chavis ends his first year as the NAACP's executive director embroiled in controversy over his failure to consult the board before staging an outreach meeting earlier this month that included such controversial figures as Angela Davis, Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael), Sister Souljah, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Maulana Ron Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa.

The meeting offended members of the group's enormous, often fractious 64-member board for at least three reasons, I am told by past and present board members:

One, Mr. Chavis failed to consult the board and that's not how things are done in the NAACP corporate culture.

Two, Mr. Chavis' letter read like an open invitation to what it called ''increased levels of membership and active participation within the NAACP at national and local levels,'' even though some of the folks invited to the outreach meeting were further philosophically from the NAACP than Rush Limbaugh is from Hillary Rodham Clinton.

And, three, with the NAACP so desperately short of funds that, according to various reports, it is struggling month to month to meet its own payroll, at least some board members shy away from any bold new directions that might offend major contributors.

This isn't the first time Mr. Chavis has ruffled feathers with his sometimes maverick attempts to bring the organization's reputation for largely middle-class activism into closer touch with the poorest of the poor and the angriest of the angry. He has slept in housing projects, met with gang leaders in Chicago and entered into a ''sacred covenant'' of unity with Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan.

That covenant came back to bite him when Mr. Farrakhan endorsed the ''truths,'' if not the ''manner,'' of anti-Semitic and other hate-filled comments by an aide.

Still, Mr. Chavis, 46, a veteran of '60s civil-rights crusades, has held to his belief that the NAACP can represent the broad diversity of African-Americans.

I wish him luck, although he probably is wrong if he thinks any organization has a reach broad enough to embrace the full diversity of black America. But the NAACP does need to re-examine its mission and methods in light of changing times. Its board members acknowledged that when they picked Mr. Chavis, the first post-World War II baby boomer to be their leader. Now, if only they'd let him lead.

No question that the organization has lost touch. Forty years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision, which was argued by Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers, African-Americans seem to be more angry and pessimistic about their future and the NAACP's role in it.

While the NAACP still puts greatest prominence on its civil-rights front, polls show rank-and-file black Americans listing jobs, schools and crime among higher priorities than civil rights.

Among recent evidence, a poll of African-American voters by Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist, found us to be ''a more radical . . . black America than existed five years ago.'' About half, for example, support the formation of a black-oriented third political party, reversing a trend that showed such support in steady decline in the '80s.

The message many black Americans seem to be hearing is the one the late Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad used to say, that we have to learn to ''do for self.''

Just as many think the two major political parties either ignore blacks or take them for granted, so do many feel the NAACP is not a truly independent voice for black interests. Current NAACP money woes only help underscore the notion that its leaders serve only at the behest of ''outside'' white powers, however liberal they may be.

Not so, says civil-rights veteran Julian Bond, an American University professor.

He says, after serving 10 years on its board, that the NAACP needs only to do a better job of advertising what it does at the local level, instead of focusing so much attention only on its national directors.

''When young people find out what the local branches are doing around the country, they're impressed,'' says Mr. Bond.

''But how can we expect them to know when most older folks don't know, either?''

That would be a start, but the organization probably needs more than a public-relations shift to restore its former energy. After decades of thinking almost exclusively in terms of civil rights or black-power politics, black Americans are desperately seeking a third path to liberation: economic empowerment and a spiritual renewal among the impoverished and disenchanted.

Louis Farrakhan has answered that call with a strong voice that attacks enemies, real and imagined, and encourages self-help. If the NAACP, with all its gathered genius, cannot come up with a better, more attractive, less hate-filled alternative, it might as well close up shop.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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