NAACP must take steps to speak with one voice

March 07, 2001|By Gregory Kane

IT IS HIGH time NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond has his mouth bronzed and retired.

Once that happens, Kweisi Mfume, NAACP president and chief executive officer, can proceed with his plans to meet with Republican leaders to find ways for them and America's black community to work together. An article in the March 4 editions of The Sun by reporter Laurie Willis included excerpts of letters exchanged between Mfume and House of Representatives Majority Leader Dick Armey.

Armey said comments that Mfume and Bond made Feb. 17 during the NAACP's annual meeting in Washington, when both accused President George W. Bush of sharply dividing the nation, amounted to reverse race-baiting.

Willis' article featured a comment Bond made at the meeting, referring to Bush and other Republicans:

"They selected nominees from the Taliban wing of American politics, appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing and chose Cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection."

You would think with the phrase "wretched appetites," Bond would have been referring to the mercifully departed Bill Clinton and his lust for sex, money, power - just about everything not nailed down - and his hankering to pry up everything that is.

Who took the brunt of the GOP response? Who took the weight? Bond? Nope. Armey fired off a missive to Mfume on Feb. 22. Part of it was quoted in Willis' story.

"I believe," Armey wrote, "there is a phenomenon in American politics today that could justly be called `racial McCarthyism' or `reverse race-baiting.' In my opinion, it has become an all too common practice to spread unfounded, racially charged falsehoods against Republicans for political advantage. Deliberate or not, if left unchallenged, this practice will continue to divide our nation, polarize our political parties, and do untold harm in the lives of real people who are unjustly accused of conspiracy against the civil rights of African-Americans."

At this point in the letter, Armey could have inserted the picture of Ellen Sauerbrey, the one-time Republican candidate for governor of Maryland who was the victim of vicious and despicable racial McCarthyism and reverse race-baiting. But he continued:

"It started several years ago with suggestions that somehow Republicans were associated with church burnings. It continued last fall with the NAACP's television ad accusing George W. Bush of callous indifference to the brutal slaying of James Byrd. It went on through the contested election, with the likening of Florida to Selma. It has even infected the most mundane jurisdictional matters here in the House."

Mfume deftly handled and cooled the hot potato the board chairman had dropped in his lap.

"I'm glad to know that you are deeply concerned about the perils of racial polarization and its ability to undermine and strangle both social and political progress," Mfume wrote Armey the next day.

"As your friend and former colleague I too share a deep concern that the propensity for mischaracterizations by any group or organization in our society further divides our nation and its communities ... President Bush, you, Speaker [Dennis] Hastert and Senator [Trent] Lott have a tremendous responsibility working with the democratic minority to set the political tone and temperament of our nation.

"All of you, myself and countless others in the larger civil rights community have an equally awesome responsibility to help set the social tone and temperament in an effort to prevent anarchy and unbridled anger from ripping our society apart.

"On the issue of race, the American people have every right to expect that we will work together to achieve real and lasting progress. Under that rubric our mantra must read, `race-baiters of either ilk need not apply.'"

Mfume's letter should go a long way toward undoing the damage that Bond - the Mouth that Bored - has done. But it's a letter Mfume should never have had to write. As president and CEO, it is - or should be - Mfume who is speaking for the organization.

The NAACP has a crisis. It faces the dilemma of making clear to its members, in particular, and all African-Americans, in general, just who speaks for the NAACP. Is it the president and CEO or the board chairman? If it's the latter, then the NAACP owes Mfume an explanation of why it's been wasting his time during his tenure as president. If it's the former, the organization should tell Bond to either shut up or take a hike.

Bond's problem, you see, is that he still thinks he's a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee - SNCC - the radical 1960s civil rights group that in its latter days specialized in such rhetoric as Bond is spouting. It didn't work then, it won't work now. That, of course, won't deter Bond, who figures he's the real leader of the NAACP.

Willis' story said his response to Armey's letter was that the NAACP would not be silenced. It doesn't take much reading between the lines to gauge his real meaning.

"L'NAACP, c'est moi."

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