Mfume takes office as head of an NAACP living within its means New president promises unspecified changes

February 18, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Rep. Kweisi Mfume took the reins yesterday of an NAACP that owes creditors $3.2 million but that has stopped spending more than it takes in.

"Go tell it on the mountain that the NAACP is back," Mr. Mfume told an energized crowd at the group's annual meeting. "We will change this America that we love because we will change ourselves."

In a closed session, the 64-member NAACP board approved a contract that guarantees Mr. Mfume $200,000 for each of three years, granted him the new title of president and chief executive officer, and ratified constitutional changes that allow him to report to a 17-member executive committee instead of the full board.

The 47-year-old Baltimore congressman's ascension to leadership of the nation's largest civil rights group represents the completion of the changing of the guard at the 87-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Candidates backed by Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams swept board elections, consolidating her hold on the fractious body.

Mrs. Evers-Williams moved quickly to seat the new board members, giving her allies the votes to push through constitutional changes.

Once the new members were seated 19 minutes into the open portion of the board meeting, former Chairman William F. Gibson quietly pushed his chair away from the table and took a seat among the spectators.

It was a year ago this weekend that Mrs. Evers-Williams defeated the veteran chairman by a single vote, amid controversy about his spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars in NAACP funds.

Mr. Mfume's predecessor, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., was fired in August 1994.

The board voted last night to instruct the NAACP general counsel to try to recover about $110,000 in questioned expenses that Dr. Gibson incurred as chairman.

Dr. Gibson's lawyer argued unsuccessfully that the former chairman owed the NAACP nothing.

For his part, Dr. Gibson bristled at the abrupt seating of newly elected board members.

"It's never been done that way in the history of the association, and I've been attending board meetings for 25 years," he said.

But younger NAACP activists praised the pace of change and the new leadership.

"Mfume set the vision and tone for the NAACP for the next century," said Walter Wilson of the San Jose, Calif., branch. "The rank and file is saying let's move forward and do civil rights work. If that's not your agenda, you need to sit down somewhere."

Furmin Sessoms, executive secretary of the Chicago Southside branch, said: "NAACP people want sweet reason, but they also want a little flavor. Mr. Mfume gave them both."

Kimberly Weaver, a Baltimorean and Emory University student who is a youth member on the board, said having seen Mr. Mfume up close as a congressman had made her a believer that he could transform the NAACP.

Mr. Mfume, who is scheduled to resign his 7th District congressional seat today, will apparently have to remake the NAACP without much money.

NAACP Treasurer Francisco L. Borges said revenues declined in 1995 to about $13 million but the group showed a "modest surplus" because of sharp cuts in payroll and other expenses.

He said the surplus was the NAACP's first in six years: "We lived within our means, which is a major step forward."

Mr. Borges said the NAACP aims to reduce its $3.2 million debt to about $800,000 by the end of 1996. "The only way we can do that is by making pretty significant cuts," he said.

The NAACP's national staff has already been slashed to about 50, less than half what it was two years ago.

Some members were upset that Mr. Borges did not present a written financial report to the annual meeting.

"It was more of the same," said Michael Meyers, president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and an NAACP gadfly. "Where's the written treasurer's report? We still haven't gotten an actual count of our members."

The NAACP claims a membership of about 500,000 in 2,200 branches, college chapters and youth councils.

In a speech devoid of specifics, Mr. Mfume said that youth members were his "greatest priority," and he reiterated that he would bring sweeping change to the Baltimore-based organization.

"On the national level, there will be change. Don't be afraid of that," he said.

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