Disarray at the NAACP

January 26, 1995

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest civil rights group, has come to a sad pass. Disaffected officials have asked the federal District Court in Baltimore to strip board Chairman William F. Gibson of control over the organization's finances and order an independent audit. The group is $4.5 million in debt; it has dipped $1 million into its pension fund to cover expenses. The respected law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, which was advising the NAACP pro bono, bailed out recently citing the board's unwillingness to do what is necessary to put its affairs in order. No replacement for fired executive director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. has been named.

And that's just the national office. Local chapters are riding rough seas, too. The Boston local faces bankruptcy. In Baltimore, Detroit and other cities, elections for local officers have been rTC disrupted by insurgencies led by youthful but naive admirers of Mr. Chavis. Some chapters have threatened to withhold dues unless Mr. Gibson steps down. Where local chapters function, members express frustration at the lack of vision and support coming from the national headquarters in Baltimore.

Such disarray couldn't come at a worse time. The new Republican majority in Congress has threatened to cut spending sharply for many of the government programs that benefit African Americans. The Congressional Black Caucus, whose members are overwhelmingly Democrats, has been defunded under the GOP reforms and the partisan change in committee and subcommittee chairmanships has stripped it of influence and clout it once enjoyed. Meanwhile, a Democratic Party desperately searching for the center seems reluctant to champion many traditional civil rights remedies.

Turmoil at the NAACP has left a leadership vacuum in a black community that already is under siege from within and without. Crime, joblessness and other urban ills are serious problems that disproportionately affect African Americans. Yet the mood in Washington for budget-cutting and smaller government portends a greatly reduced national commitment to address those needs.

The NAACP still has a vital role to play in making equal opportunity a reality for all Americans. It is one of the few groups with the credibility and stature to carry on the tradition that produced the triumphs of the civil rights movement earlier this century. Putting the NAACP's house in order should be the board's highest priority when it meets Feb. 18. Personalities must take a back seat to the organization's needs. With institutions as with nations, a house divided cannot stand.

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