NEW YORK -- By a single vote, the NAACP board ousted Chairman William F. Gibson yesterday and installed Myrlie B. Evers-Williams as the leader of the nation's largest civil rights group.
The 30-29 vote, taken behind closed doors on a secret ballot, capped months of rancor within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People over reports that Dr. Gibson racked up $800,000 in extravagant expenses while the NAACP went $4 million in debt.
The action came just hours after 800 members of the organization's rank and file overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding, no-confidence motion against Dr. Gibson.
Enolia P. McMillan, a 90-year-old board member from Baltimore and a past national NAACP president, made the no-confidence motion at the end of the general membership meeting. She urged the members to "express our lack of confidence in the leadership, which could clear the way for the board to do something about it."
"I wanted to be here to cast my one vote," Mrs. McMillan said after Dr. Gibson was ousted by the board. "I really didn't think it [the board's single-vote margin] would be that close, and I'm still trying to figure out why. For me the decision would not have been so difficult."
Despite the no-confidence vote, Gibson supporters had continued to believe he would win re-election when it came time for the board to vote.
Mrs. Evers-Williams, 61, of Bend, Ore., is a former college administrator, corporate executive and public official. She is the widow of Medgar Evers, the NAACP Mississippi field secretary who was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963.
The new leader of the Baltimore-based NAACP pledged a "fresh start" for the troubled organization.
In recent months, its financial survival and allegations of misuse of funds by Dr. Gibson, have overshadowed its voice on civil rights issues, miring the organization in one of the worst crises of its 86-year history.
"It is an emotional time for me, but I can't be emotional for too long because I know we have too much to do, and I see your signs, 'Clean House,' " she told a rally of jubilant supporters last night.
Calling the Republican-controlled 104th Congress a "dangerous one," Mrs. Evers-Williams said: "We in this organization will be able to make Newt old," referring to House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Word of Mrs. Evers-Williams' election was received with rejoicing and shouts of "Free at last!" from Gibson opponents camped outside the hotel ballroom where the board met.
"The people spoke today. One vote can make a difference," said C. DeLores Tucker, a leading Gibson opponent. "My reaction is one word: Hallelujah!"
An ebullient W. Gregory Wims, president of the Maryland NAACP, said: "The people's voice has been heard. We will work diligently to raise money and membership under the leadership of Mrs. Evers."
NAACP Vice Chairman Ben Andrews announced Mrs. Evers-Williams' victory after designated tellers for the candidates counted the paper ballots of board members. The reaction was muted; Dr. Gibson congratulated the winner cordially, said staff members who were present.
Dr. Gibson, 61, a South Carolina dentist, was not available for comment last night.
"It was an evenly divided board. I thought he might hang in," said T. H. Poole Sr., a Gibson ally whose management of the money-losing NAACP "Image Awards" television show became a major issue. Mr. Poole had earlier said a "silent majority" of 39 board members backed Dr. Gibson.
Supporters of Mrs. Evers-Williams said several board members apparently switched to her side in the last 24 hours.
The presence of Owen Bieber, president of the United Auto Workers and a supporter of Mrs. Evers-Williams, might have been decisive. The union leader rarely has attended board meetings.
Several newly elected board members, including civil rights activist Julian Bond, a leading Gibson critic, were not eligible to vote for a chairman.
Having been elected, Mrs. Evers-Williams assumed the leadership of the board as it chose its other officers. Rupert Richardson, a holdover from the Gibson regime, was re-elected president; Francisco Borges, former Connecticut state treasurer, is the new treasurer, and Franklin Breckenridge, an Indiana lawyer, was elected vice chairman.
Dr. Gibson's board opponents had long urged Mrs. Evers-Williams to challenge the chairman.
Board member Joseph E. Madison recalled urging her to run on June 12, 1994, the 31st anniversary of Medgar Evers' death, as they stood at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Mr. Madison said her husband had died for the NAACP and that she could not now let the NAACP die.
Mrs. Evers-Williams, who was living in semiretirement in Oregon, was not keen on the idea. Her husband, Walter Williams, a retired California longshoreman and union organizer, has prostate cancer and needs her care. In October, she told the board in Baltimore that, despite rumors to the contrary, she had no plans to run.