NAACP celebrates a new era with Mfume taking the helm Allies of ousted Gibson may make last stand at weekend meeting

February 16, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The NAACP's Kweisi Mfume era began last night with a private reception, billed by the nation's largest civil rights group as a celebration of "our new day begun," in honor of the Baltimore congressman and incoming NAACP president.

Despite a threat of resistance from the NAACP board's old guard, Mr. Mfume, a 47-year-old five-term Democratic congressman from Baltimore, plans to take hold of the troubled organization over the next several days.

Tomorrow, Mr. Mfume will address the rank and file of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the group's annual meeting. Then the NAACP's 64-member board of directors is to vote on the new leader's $200,000-a-year contract.

Clinton is expected

On Sunday, Mr. Mfume will officially resign his House seat from the 7th District. On Tuesday, he is to be inaugurated in a ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington. President Clinton is expected to attend.

On Wednesday the new NAACP president is to travel to California to announce the nominees for the revived NAACP Image Awards. The TV program had become a money loser that was emblematic of the financial mismanagement that put the Baltimore-based civil rights group $3.2 million in debt.

"It's a great day for the NAACP," said Julian Bond, a board member. "The good guys are on the ascendancy. The bad guys are on the run."

But the "bad guys," in Mr. Bond's words, may make a final stand this weekend. Allies of former NAACP Chairman William F. Gibson have sought an additional board meeting here, and they may have the votes to block constitutional changes, such as granting Mr. Mfume the new title of president/chief executive officer. Such amendments require approval by a two-thirds vote of board members present.

Dr. Gibson, who was defeated a year ago by Myrlie Evers-Williams after a decade as chairman, has not resolved the matter of nearly $112,000 in questionable expenses that he racked up in his last five years as chairman.

Some want to take Dr. Gibson to court to recover the money. Dr. Gibson's lawyer contends that the former chairman owes nothing. The dispute has festered since the board tabled the matter at a meeting in October.

NAACP insiders say that unless Dr. Gibson is offered a deal that would reduce his liability, his board allies could try to disrupt what Mrs. Evers-Williams hopes will be a festive weekend that will show America that the organization is ready to reassert its primacy on civil rights issues.

"The problem is Gibson again," said Joseph E. Madison, an Evers-Williams ally on the board. "He's that burr under the saddle that keeps us from having a smooth ride. These guys just really don't know when to give up."

But T. H. Poole Sr., Dr. Gibson's leading defender on the board, said the petition for a supplementary board meeting was simply an effort to ensure that important changes would not be railroaded through the body.

"It took 86 years to get [the constitution] set up, and all of a sudden you have a dozen proposed changes," he said. "You need to have full discussion. This has nothing to do with individuals."

Mr. Mfume could not be reached for comment. Since being chosen in December to head the NAACP, he has appeared to steer clear of board politics, which pit the remnants of Dr. Gibson's machine against what they regard as the new "elitists," such as Mr. Bond.

Mr. Mfume has said his first six months on the job will be devoted to restoring the NAACP's financial health. He inherits a heavily indebted organization with a skeletal national staff of about 50.

Acting Executive Director Earl T. Shinhoster, an unsuccessful candidate for Mr. Mfume's job, quietly resigned two weeks ago.

Seeking support

In his first direct-mail fund-raising appeal, Mr. Mfume has asked supporters to underwrite "a fresh beginning, a new era for our NAACP."

"When I am sworn in as your new president, I hope to announce to the press and politicians that the business community and generous friends like you have contributed $1 million to a special President's Action Fund," Mr. Mfume wrote in the letter.

In the letter, Mr. Mfume says his priorities as NAACP president will include:

* Registering, educating and energizing voters in every congressional district to battle "the forces of reaction who seek to deprive African-Americans and all minorities of the rights we've fought so hard to achieve."

* Building strong coalitions, "both within and outside black America."

* Reaching out to black youth "in ways they understand" and creating programs to "rescue them from hopelessness, poverty, drugs and crime."

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