Don't Write the NAACP's Obit Yet

August 20, 1994|By MARILYN McCRAVEN

NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis' current entanglement over the alleged use of NAACP funds to avoid a sex harassment and sexual discrimination lawsuit is just the latest controversy for the 85-year-old organization.

In 1934, the NAACP board forced out W. E. B. DuBois, one of its founders, as the editor of its magazine, The Crisis, and director of publications, for being more militant than the group wished. There was a real fear that the move would splinter the group and keep it from being a force in the civil rights struggle.

That didn't happen. And it hasn't happened as a result of any of the other controversies that have battered the organization.

That's one reason why I think the pundits currently citing the Chavis issue -- possibly the NAACP's most serious challenge to date -- as a sign of the group's eminent demise are likely wrong.

the past, after each controversy the NAACP has refocused on its mission to fight discrimination and improve conditions for black Americans. That apparently has helped its members overcome tears in the fabric of unity and regroup to fight for justice.

Even at its inception, there was much infighting among NAACP members. In the DuBois case, some NAACP founders were reluctant to invite him to join the founding board. DuBois was controversial even then for his scathing criticism of the great accommodationist, Booker T. Washington, according to DuBois biographer, David Levering Lewis.

Civil rights leaders outside the NAACP also have had run-ins with the group.

Martin Luther King Jr. was at times wary of NAACP leaders. When King began his mass demonstrations in the South some in the NAACP accused him of having a messiah complex. In the late '50s and early '60s, the older NAACP establishment wanted to address injustices through the courts, not on the streets. "I have seen efforts on the part of NAACP officials to sabotage our humble efforts," King told a loyalist, according to King biographer, David Garrow, in "Bearing the Cross."

Baltimore's Thurgood Marshall, leader of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund for many years and eventually the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, is said to have quipped at one time that the organization should be renamed the National Association for the Advancement of "Certain" Colored People. That was an apparent reference to the NAACP's tendency to favor conservative establishment types.

In 1983, NAACP board chairman Margaret Bush Wilson of St. Louis was forced to resign after a showdown with then-executive director Benjamin Hooks was sparked by Ms. Wilson demanding an audit report. Mr. Hooks refused, noting that Ms. Wilson had blocked the firing of the auditor who had caused the delay. Ms. Wilson suspended Mr. Hooks. Eventually, the board induced Ms. Wilson to resign and the chairman's powers were reduced.

In 1982, the NAACP sued the NAACP Legal Defense Fund over the use of the name. The legal defense fund was established in 1939 as a tax-exempt arm of the NAACP that could raise funds and pursue legal and educational efforts to improve the lot of blacks. The Internal Revenue Service had ruled in 1957 that the two groups had to be separated, with different boards of directors.

The NAACP's suit was unsuccessful, and the matter died. But still, it was embarrassing for the former allies in the movement to be involved in a public squabble.

In the '50's and '60s, various organizations sprang up and, at times, challenged the NAACP as the dominant civil rights organization. Among them was King's Southern Christian Leadership Council; that group spawned the Student Nonviolent tTC Coordinating Committee, the student arm of the civil rights movement. Though these organizations made significant contributions to the struggle for equality, none today rivals the NAACP's power and scope. However, they did help shape the ever-evolving NAACP.

In the '60s, many who were more militant saw the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as irrelevant, out of step with the times. Even the name came under attack; we were black people now, not colored, the critics argued; change the name to reflect that. The NAACP held to the name for historic reasons.

As the board meets today to discuss Mr. Chavis' future, it should reflect on a history that shows it has the ability to overcome problems and prove the pundits wrong.

Marilyn McCraven edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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