CHICAGO -- In what the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. called a "referendum on our direction," the NAACP convention rejected an attempt yesterday by one of Dr. Chavis' critics to join the group's board of directors.
Convention delegates elected a 20-year-old college student, Chelle M. Luper, in a runoff over C. DeLores Tucker, a civil rights veteran who had raised questions about the NAACP's $2.7 million deficit.
While the election of one person to a 64-member board was largely symbolic, an elated Dr. Chavis and board chairman William F. Gibson labeled the vote a ratification of their leadership.
Ms. Luper, who will be the 16th woman on the board, is a broadcast journalism major at Langston University in Oklahoma and has attended NAACP conventions since she was a toddler.
"I think a message was sent," Ms. Luper said. "I respect Dr. Tucker for all she has done because she paved a way. But it's time to pass the torch to a new generation."
Dr. Chavis, who became executive director of the Baltimore-based NAACP 15 months ago, has made attracting black youth a major goal. He has walked the streets of tough neighborhoods, slept in a public housing project, sponsored gang summits and courted Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has a substantial following on college campuses.
Yesterday morning, Dr. Chavis walked the dank tunnels and dreary hallways of the 9,000-inmate Cook County Jail, a sprawling complex built to hold only 5,000 prisoners. About 70 percent of the inmates are black, and most are young men awaiting trial or sentencing.
Dr. Chavis, accompanied by Earl B. King, a former professional basketball player who heads Chicago's No Dope Express Foundation, stopped in a jail classroom to chat with a dozen black teen-agers about to start an English class on "The Importance of Freedom."
He asked them if they knew what the NAACP was, and a couple sullenly acknowledged its existence. Dr. Chavis, 46, is not a household name like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson or Minister Farrakhan -- nor, for many youth, is the 85-year-old civil rights group. He explained to the inmates that the initials stand for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Don't just serve time," Dr. Chavis gently advised them. "Make time serve you" through education. The typical inmate at the Chicago jail reads at a fifth-grade level.
The young men perked up a bit when the NAACP leader said that he spent "most of the 1970s in prison" but now heads the nation's largest civil rights organization. Dr. Chavis was imprisoned on charges of conspiracy to firebomb a white-owned grocery in North Carolina -- a conviction that was later overturned.
Terrance Wilson, a 19-year-old from one of Chicago's poorest housing projects, said that he had played on the No Dope Express basketball team but "got caught up in gang-banging" again because the lure of drug money was too much to resist.
"Be strong," Dr. Chavis urged the young men as he left. The NAACP's2,200 branches and youth chapters include 50 prison units.
Back at the convention, Dr. Chavis gave Mr. King an award, shared the podium with baseball great Hank Aaron, who also was honored, and embraced the former head of the NAACP, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks. Dr. Hooks has publicly disputed Dr. Chavis' claim that the group's financial woes are rooted in red ink from his tenure, but nothing untoward was said.
In yesterday's election, Dr. Tucker got 45 percent of the vote, which she called a significant protest of the leadership. She had won 43 percent to Ms. Luper's 27 percent in Tuesday's five-person, first-round election.
"If you're not a rubber-stamp for Mr. Gibson, you're not welcome on the board," said Dr. Tucker, a former Pennsylvania secretary of state, Democratic National Committeemember and founder of the National Political Congress of Black Women.
She contended that the NAACP, facing a deficit, was "irresponsible" to sponsor an unbudgeted black leadership summit in Baltimore and schedule a sequel next month; take a delegation of top officials to South Africa; and establish a permanent office in that country, at a projected cost of $750,000 to $1 million a year.
Saying that she had raised more than $2 million for the NAACP, Dr. Tucker said that she would not abandon the civil rights group, but she added, "No fool raises money without having some understanding of how it's being spent."
But Dr. Gibson said that Dr. Tucker, a trustee of the NAACP's fund-raising arm, "had the opportunity to demonstrate her fund-raising skills over 10 years, and I'm not aware of any great degree of income she's brought to the association."