Starting Over at the NAACP

July 18, 1995

The audit report of NAACP finances confirms the worst fears about fiscal mismanagement and waste by the venerable civil rights group's former top officials, ousted Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis and Board President William F. Gibson.

According to the report, Messrs. Chavis and Gibson together charged more than half a million dollars in expenses for such items as limousine rentals, fancy hotels and gifts to friends and relatives that included such personal items as toys, maternity clothing, electronic games and furniture.

All this was done at a time when the NAACP was deeply in debt and struggling to meet its payroll -- and the enemies of equal opportunity were steadily gaining strength. Yet Messrs. Chavis and Gibson treated the nation's oldest civil rights group as if its sole purpose was to finance an obscenely extravagant lifestyle that they apparently believed themselves entitled to as self-styled champions of the poor and downtrodden.

It has fallen to newly elected board president Myrlie B. Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, to get the Baltimore-based NAACP back to the basics of civil rights work after nearly a year of scandal and debt. That was the message she delivered at the group's 86th annual convention in Minneapolis last week. But it will take more than fine words to end the backbiting and factional infighting that caused the group, temporarily at least, to lose sight of its mission.

The NAACP's money troubles, serious as they are, constitute only one aspect of the problem. The other is leadership. Dr. Chavis has been gone nearly a year and the group still has not found a permanent replacement for him. Even if its financial travails were somehow miraculously resolved tomorrow, without a dynamic executive director of unquestioned ability and integrity, someone who can persuasively articulate the bedrock principles the NAACP is pledged to uphold and inspire its membership to action, the national organization risks evolving into a pitiful paper tiger.

Before its current crisis, the NAACP had exemplary leaders in Roy Wilkins and Benjamin Hooks. It must recruit a director of comparable stature if it is to remain an effective advocate in the post civil-rights era. The 1990s have in many ways witnessed a cruel betrayal of the bright hopes of the 1960s that were fostered in large part by the incessant activism of groups like the NAACP. Specific issues and tactics may change, but the broad principle of equal justice endures. So long as it remains an ideal rather than a reality, there will be a need for a healthy and combative NAACP.

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