Bond uses e-mail to revitalize NAACP

Civil rights leader praised for communication as board celebrates 90 years

February 19, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Over nearly four decades in the public eye, Julian Bond has had his ups and downs. Today, as far as the NAACP is concerned, he is up.

Way up.

As the NAACP celebrates its 90th year with its annual meeting in Washington tomorrow, the history professor marks his first anniversary as chairman of the national board amid praise from most who work with him.

Some charge that Bond's focus on tried-and-true civil rights issues such as voter registration and prisoners' rights marks him as behind the times. But board members from New York to Utah say this is precisely what has made Bond successful as chairman.

And they say he has done what some thought impossible: invigorated and unified the 64-member board through, of all things, e-mail.

"Julian has been an excellent, excellent communicator. I don't know of anyone who has been as responsive as him," says Jeanetta Williams, a board member from Salt Lake City who frequently is critical of Bond. "There are still some things he could do, but he's been a thinker and a doer long before he became chair of the NAACP board of directors."

Bond, 59, sends e-mails to members of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People every working day, often as many as a dozen a day.

On his list of recipients are NAACP officers, board members, opinion leaders and press contacts nationwide.

When he becomes incensed that U.S. senators have affiliations with white separatist organizations or that a black man was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, he sits down to write and click.

For a board that until a year ago relied on fax machines and telephones to keep in touch -- and, some argue, found it nearly impossible to get anything done as a result -- Bond's reliance on e-mail has been revolutionary.

Board members say they feel a real sense of purpose -- more than they've felt in a long time.

"Julian is a teacher, and he has been teaching all of us without coming out and saying it," said Louise A. Simpson, a board member from New York who has criticized Bond on other issues. "I find it fantastic. This is a lot of information that I wasn't receiving before."

Said Anthony Fugett, a board member from Baltimore, "He gives a good perspective on what's going on around the country. He's clearly running at a policy level."

Bond echoes this sentiment.

Though he says the chairman's post has taken more time than he expected, he says he has ambitions to do more: increase membership, bolster the $2 million surplus and fill vacant staff and regional positions.

"I want to spend '99 and 2000 registering every nonregistered black voter and developing the means and wherewithal to turn them out in massive numbers next year," he said. "If there's one thing I want to do, it is get our political action up to snuff.

"We need to go back to our basics," he added. "Fighting racial discrimination, organization, mobilization, coalition."

At tomorrow's meeting, board members will discuss a pile of issues particular to their branches -- police brutality, lagging membership, affirmative action. Board members also will discuss a controversial decision to raise membership dues March 1.

Joe Madison, a board member from Montgomery County, said of his friend: "He is the same Julian from 20, 30 years ago."

Bond has indeed been at the work of civil rights for a very long time and has seen some tough times. Once a young renegade activist and Georgia state senator, Bond fell from public favor amid personal scandal -- including a paternity suit -- in the '70s and '80s. Today, he teaches at the University of Virginia.

It is Bond's familiar -- some say old-fashioned -- civil rights talk that inspires his critics, most of whom seem to be clustered in the national offices on Mount Hope Drive in Northwest Baltimore. There, rumors abound that Bond and Kweisi Mfume, who is completing his third year as president, are hardly confidants.

Even as the NAACP tries to counter a view that it is irrelevant and out-of-step with African-Americans, some staff members complain privately that Bond lacks the youth and charisma the organization desperately needs.

For example, said one staffer, at the recent NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles, Bond gave the aging Harry Belafonte his Chairman's Award. Mfume, who turned 50 in October, highlighted the young, hip-hop superstar Lauryn Hill.

Mfume, for his part, speaks of Bond with respect and deference but seems cautious in choosing his words: "The best thing he has done is in keeping the reform and rebuilding and restructuring effort alive on the board itself. That is major, because it began under Myrlie [Evers-Williams, former board chairwoman], and if it broke down I don't know what direction the organization might have swung in."

He added, "I don't have a problem with Julian at all. I like him as an individual. I've been adjusting to him, and he has adjusted to me."

One senior official, who called Bond academic and remote, said Bond has visited Baltimore just once in the past year. Bond said it has been three times, adding that "the wonders of e-mail" mean he no longer has to travel so much.

Still, by all accounts, no other board members are seriously considering challenging Bond, who had been on the board 16 years, for the job of chairman.

"I haven't heard anyone say they could do a better job [than Julian]," Simpson said.

His longtime friend, Roger Wilkins, publisher of the NAACP's Crisis magazine, says Bond is a "quieter personality" who "spends a lot of time reflecting."

"Kweisi's got this big magnetic smile and he walks around, shaking hands -- he's a political guy. There's an electricity to him," says Wilkins.

"Julian has electricity too, but it's different. His is more slow and elegant star power."

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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