Interim chief defends NAACP's direction

Critics say corporate ties compromising activism

December 13, 2004|By Greg Barrett and Kelly Brewington | Greg Barrett and Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Critics who say corporate allies and member attrition have softened the nation's oldest and most storied civil rights organization probably never uttered those views in the presence of Dennis C. Hayes.

The NAACP lawyer and interim president stiffens in his chair. The NAACP talks tough. The dog hasn't lost its bark.

"No one gives money to the NAACP expecting their contribution to buy them any quarter," Hayes said last week, referring to donations from such household names as Microsoft, Wyndham, Exxon, Wachovia, PepsiCo and Kodak.

"We will take your money today," he said forcefully, "and sue you tomorrow."

But critics worry that the group's heavy reliance on company donations has compromised its effectiveness. The nation's oldest civil rights watchdog might hesitate to bite the hand that feeds it, they reason.

Under the leadership of Kweisi Mfume, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization increasingly forged relations with Wall Street and solicited millions of dollars from corporations.

Meanwhile, the number of individual members the NAACP claims remains at 500,000, a figure unchanged since 1946. The total cannot be validated by the organization's national office in Baltimore, and it declines to provide a complete picture of corporate donations.

Asked to give examples of where the organization sued corporate benefactors, the tough-talking Hayes, the NAACP's chief legal officer since 1990, shut his eyes and searched his memory. He thought of one.

The Adam's Mark hotel chain was giving money to the organization in 1999 when the NAACP alleged that it had discriminated against black guests during a black college reunion in Daytona Beach, Fla. Two years later, the organization initiated a boycott of the hotel chain and Adam's Mark agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a federal discrimination lawsuit.

"They saw something that they thought needed to be addressed, and it is the organization's right to address it," said Adam's Mark spokesman Tommie Monroe, who has a plaque in his office from the NAACP's local St. Louis chapter. It is dated 1999 and commends the Adam's Mark for equality and fairness.

"We still give support to the NAACP today," Monroe added.

NAACP accounting

Lots of companies do. The NAACP's $27 million annual budget is marbled with contributions from the nation's leading corporations. But how much Wall Street gives is anybody's guess.

At a time when outspoken members such as black historian Denton L. Watson say that company loyalties compromise activism, the NAACP cannot or will not provide a full accounting.

Hayes said the organization's public tax records "should tell the story." But in them the NAACP does not distinguish between individual and corporate support. The information "is not available," spokesman John C. White said in an e-mail.

Watson, a former NAACP publicity director, called that explanation absurd: "They know. They just don't want you to know."

White changed his explanation after learning of Watson's assertion: "I should've said that we don't want that information disclosed."

When Watson worked at the national NAACP office from 1983 to 1985, about 80 percent of the operating budget came from members, individual donors and local branch fund-raisers, he said. It was proof of the group's strong membership and grass-roots muscle, he said.

Mfume, a former Maryland congressman hired as NAACP president in mid-1996 when the group was running about $3.2 million in the red and reeling from accusations of financial mismanagement, is credited - or faulted - with wooing corporate America.

In his resignation speech Nov. 30, Mfume spoke of budget surpluses, $15 million in cash reserves and "a flourishing endowment" of several million more.

"Nine years ago we were an organization waylaid by the paralysis of analysis," he said. "Some thought that we had lost our way, and in the process they thought we had lost our will."

NAACP supporter Earl G. Graves, the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, said that under Mfume's tenure the organization was successful at raising money and scrutinizing businesses' commitment to diversity.

"What's wrong with a nonprofit raising money from corporations?" Graves asked. "Kweisi did so with persuasion. But he never said, `Well, I can't knock these people because they gave me money.'"

Corporations have responded to NAACP pressure by increasing their marketing to blacks and by hiring more minorities in management positions, Graves said.

"This idea of going to companies that you know are not doing the right thing and telling them, `Well, if you don't shape up, we won't support you,' that's nothing new," Graves said. "Jewish organizations, church groups have done it for years."

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