NAACP will gather in an upbeat mood

Healthy organization to meet in Baltimore

Naacp 2000

July 07, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

When thousands of delegates arrive in Baltimore this weekend for the NAACP's 91st annual convention, they won't be short on reasons to celebrate.

Finances for the nation's oldest civil rights organization are stronger than ever, with a $2 million surplus expected for the fifth consecutive year.

Membership has climbed to a half-million, and college and youth chapters are sprouting up nationwide.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, has gained national visibility in the past year by taking on high-profile campaigns against racism in Hollywood, gun makers and the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

An organization many thought was doomed in 1994, when then-Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis was fired after committing up to $332,400 in NAACP money to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit, has rebounded strongly under President Kweisi Mfume and Board Chairman Julian Bond.

Now, the organization is focusing on politics, as leaders continue attempts to register 4 million voters before the November election.

The convention, the theme of which is Race to Vote, has attracted President Clinton and presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore, who are scheduled to speak.

The NAACP doesn't endorse candidates and pledges to work with whomever is elected president, but the organization has enjoyed a significant amount of political influence over the years.

Gore spoke at last year's convention in New York, and the organization routinely "grades" members of Congress, as it will do at the six-day convention.

During an interview Wednesday in his office at NAACP Headquarters in Baltimore, Mfume talked about the coming election and its possible ramifications.

"We just believe that these elections, being the first of the new century, are the most important we've faced," Mfume said.

"You look at the philosophical balance of the Supreme Court. It's a delicate 5-4 balance.

"It could mean a rolling back [reversal] of major landmark initiatives, going back to Brown in 1954," when separate but equal facilities were outlawed.

In previous years, Mfume has announced major initiatives at conventions, including last year's lawsuit seeking to require firearm distributors to monitor retail gun sellers and clamp down on those involved in illegal sales.

Mfume would not disclose major announcements likely to come up during the convention.

But he promised updates on the gun maker lawsuit, efforts to promote diversity in television shows and hiring at the four major TV networks, and the flying of the Confederate flag.

"We will report on the four major agreements brokered with television networks months ago," he said.

Recently, CBS announced plans to continue airing "City of Angels," starring black actors Blair Underwood and Vivica A. Fox.

Mfume said Wednesday that the boycott against South Carolina - which has cost the state an estimated $45 million - will continue until the Confederate flag is removed from state grounds.

Last week, South Carolina legislators removed the flag from atop the Statehouse dome, where it had flown since 1962.

On Sunday, 50 members of the Southern Party of Georgia, the League of the South and the Heritage Preservation Association plan to march outside the Baltimore Convention Center to protest the NAACP's flag stance.

"We're coming to demand that the NAACP rescind their 1991 resolution which calls for eradication of Confederate symbols from all public property," John Hall, march organizer, said yesterday.

"It was clear that the legislators in South Carolina came up with a compromise, and the NAACP is unwilling to accept any compromise."

The planned protest hasn't dampened the spirit of NAACP leaders, who led a march of 47,000 in South Carolina in January.

Nor will the flag issue dominate the convention, said John C. White, NAACP spokesman.

Mfume and others are excited that the convention is in Baltimore, the first time since 1986 when the organization's headquarters moved here from New York.

Anthony S. Fugett, president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP and a former national board member, said he's happy that major issues will be addressed on his home front.

"I'd like to know what the economic development strategy is for the organization," said Fugett, who served as chairman and co-chairman of the economic development committee during his six years on the national board.

"I'm concerned about the entire spectrum of African-Americans, people who own companies, as well as people who work for companies.

"I'd like to see more African-American business owners, and I'm not just talking about `Ma and Pa' shops, either."

Ella White Campbell, also a member of the Baltimore County branch, wants education, self-empowerment, health and education addressed.

She worries about the "increasing academic gap" between blacks and whites.

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