The fight to save the NAACP

August 10, 1994|By Michael Meyers

ROY WILKINS, the great NAACP executive director from 1955 to 1977, preached that "black power is black death." But Wilkins' vision of the NAACP as an interracial force pushing at the gates to gain mainstream opportunities for blacks is no longer shared by a majority of the association's 64-member board.

The majority's indifference to integration is part of a drift toward alliances with black nationalists like Leonard Jeffries and Louis Farrakhan, and a view that the nation's oldest civil rights organization needs a radical overhaul. Younger blacks view integration as passe. In this view, the NAACP needs to emphasize the degradation of ghetto life at the expense of traditional concerns like racial separatism on campuses.

That drift has accelerated under the Rev. Benjamin Chavis -- executive director since April 1993. In recent months, he has convened two all-black meetings -- a secret session with black militants in Detroit in April and the National African-American Leadership Summit in Baltimore in June.

Alarm over these meetings and a host of other problems has thrown the board into turmoil. Participants tell me that the public skirmishes at the recent convention in Chicago were muted when contrasted with the feuding and shouting behind the scenes. There is grave dissatisfaction with the NAACP's whopping $2.7 million deficit. Some directors accuse Mr. Chavis and his allies of misrepresenting organizational policies and misstating membership figures. Others are furious about being kept in the dark about a six-figure liability Mr. Chavis incurred in settling a sexual harassment lawsuit by an ex-employee.

Now a small group of directors is joining forces with influential outsiders, including several life members of the NAACP, to wrest control of the organization from Mr. Chavis and his boss, Dr. William F. Gibson, the board chairman. I am taking part in this rescue movement, and its allies include a who's who of civil rights leaders incensed for a variety of reasons.

Several chieftains of organized labor, for example, are still fuming over Mr. Chavis' support of the North American Free Trade Agreement last fall when the board did not authorize that position. They include Joseph Davis, civil rights director of the United Automobile Workers; the UAW president, Owen Bieber, one of three whites left on the NAACP board; William Lucy of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and Thomas Turner of the AFL-CIO. Some labor leaders are so intent on driving Mr. Chavis out, according to The Forward newspaper, that they have explored raising the money to buy him out of his three-year contract.

Influential aid for the rescue effort comes from Robert L. Carter, a federal judge in New York who is a former NAACP general counsel, and from longtime civil rights leaders like Julian Bond, the former Georgia state senator, and C. Delores Tucker, former secretary of state in Pennsylvania. All three, I am told, may join a slate of prominent insurgents in this fall's election to contest the official slate of nominees for the board. And the most prominent director, Myrlie Evers, widow of the slain hero Medgar Evers, is expected to challenge Dr. Gibson's re-election as chairman at the annual meeting in February.

Not surprisingly, few directors are willing to state their opposition publicly. But the dissatisfaction with Mr. Chavis and Dr. Gibson is strong. The insurgents are already seeking a legal ruling to enforce a secret ballot in the officers' elections in February.

Even some directors who are not convinced that the organization has lost its integrationist bearings recognize that the board owes its homogeneity and insularity to the way its members are chosen.

Directors are supposedly elected by the NAACP's 450,000 members; in reality, only a small portion of the membership is invited to participate. Twenty-one directors are elected from seven regions; seven are elected by the youth chapters, one from each region; 21 are elected "at large" by members who cast ballots at branch meetings nationwide; 12 are elected directly by the national board itself, and three are elected by the annual convention. Such an electoral system makes it improbable for intellectuals and independent thinkers to be nominated, much less elected.

In such an ingrown network, elevation to the national board is prized as a reward for service in the vineyards of grass-roots activism. It helps to have an intimate familiarity with the internal machinations of the national organization or its many local chapters. People with prestige don't necessarily seek election to the board; instead, election is seen as a source of prestige.

It was before this board that the Rev. Jesse Jackson's candidacy for executive director failed last year.

Mr. Chavis is their experiment with youth, and he claims a huge growth in young adult memberships. But the radical direction in which he and Dr. Gibson want to move will reduce the clout and credibility of the NAACP as a mainline, respected force for positive social change.

One can only hope that the motley crew that has come together to rescue the NAACP will be able to rein in personal ambitions or desire for organizational power and instead carry the grandest of civil rights organizations and its supporters to victory over racial fanaticism and ethnic polarization. If they are successful, the echo of Roy Wilkins' advice will be resonant: "Steer our NAACP ship, steady as she goes."

Michael Meyers, a former NAACP assistant director, wrote this for the New York Times.

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