WASHINGTON -- In his inaugural speech as head of the nation's oldest civil rights organization, NAACP President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon implored the group's membership yesterday to seize responsibility for solving the problems facing black Americans and focus less on the impediments to civil rights.
"I am not here today to wallow in our misery," said the retired Verizon Communications Inc. executive during his much-anticipated keynote address at the Washington Convention Center. "We know the problems, we know the statistics. It is now time for us to direct our attention to the solutions.
"We have the ability to take control of our lives, our futures and our condition."
His hourlong remarks fo- cused on what the Baltimore-based NAACP can do to make a difference on issues such as education, health and voter participation, and urged members to support corporations that show a commitment to diversity.
It was a clear departure from the subject that has dominated discourse since the organization's 97th convention opened here Saturday: whether President Bush will accept the group's invitation to speak for the first time in six years.
Gordon cautioned members against placing too much emphasis on the attendance of "one person" as a barometer of the value of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"I think we've got an obsession with one person," said Gordon to the sound of rousing applause. "If we want to remain relevant and powerful, we need to do that for ourselves. He can't do it for us."
Gordon's remarks came a day after NAACP Chairman Julian Bond ripped into the Bush administration in what has become the civil rights stalwart's annual refrain.
But Gordon, who took over the helm at the organization last summer, had a different take on relations with the White House. He urged NAACP members to focus on solutions to civil rights concerns, not use "victim-like" thinking to address them.
In his first year at the NAACP, Gordon has taken on such high-profile issues as the government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, but until yesterday, he had yet to address the group's rank-and-file membership.
Although he stopped short of unveiling a full-scale agenda for the NAACP, Gordon took on such disparate issues as rising HIV rates in black communities and the need for greater protection of voting rights.
"HIV/AIDS is killing our community," he said. "I'm not talking about the problem in Africa. We're talking right here outside these convention center doors."
He said the NAACP opened the convention Saturday with a discussion on the HIV "state of emergency" among blacks and unveiled a testing area in the convention center's exhibition hall. Gordon said he, Bond and NAACP Vice-Chairwoman Rosyln Brock were tested at the site.
"If any of you fail to get tested, you have failed your community and you have failed your organization," he told the crowd.
Gordon urged NAACP members to pressure Congress to renew the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, an issue that has become a rallying cry during the convention. The NAACP hopes to assemble 1,000 members to demonstrate on Capitol Hill to urge Congress to renew the act by the August recess.
The House of Representatives approved the renewal of expiring provisions last week, despite opposition by a handful of conservatives. The Senate is expected to discuss reauthorization of the provisions, which include poll watchers and federal approval of changes in voting procedures, such as altering polling place locations.
"We are going to pound on this issue and repeat this issue until its passed by the Senate and on the president's desk to sign," he said. "We are not going to stop."
Gordon urged members not to do business with companies that perform poorly on the organization's annual report cards, which rank corporations on their commitment to diversity in areas such as minority hiring and procurement. The grades are compiled from self-reported surveys.
Gordon asked NAACP members to avoid retailer Target, which received an "F" grade because it did not respond to the civil rights group's survey for the second consecutive year. But Gordon stopped short of calling it a boycott.
"I haven't said boycott, but it sounds like it, doesn't it?" he said. "Target refuses to respond to our survey. If they refuse to respond, we should refuse to do business with them."
Target responded with a statement, saying: "Target did not participate in the 2006 NAACP General Merchandising survey because Target views diversity as being inclusive of all people from all different backgrounds, not just one group. The information requested in the NAACP survey was about African American team members only. Minorities comprise 40 percent of Target employees 25 percent of executive staff, the statement said.
"Target Corporation values diversity and is committed to creating an inclusive environment and enhancing opportunities for the success of all team members," the statement said.
The report cards, launched by former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume 10 years ago, were intended to put pressure on companies in industries such as lodging, telecommunications and banking.
But Gordon complained yesterday that the program did not go far enough in offering kudos to companies that do well and consequences for corporations that do not.
He said a new grading system would place more emphasis on minority procurement. He said that based on his 35 years experience at Verizon, on average, no more than 5 percent of corporate spending goes to contracts with minority suppliers.
"Most companies do about 1 to 2 percent," he said. "Those kinds of numbers are thoroughly unacceptable.
"We're not just asking do you use minority owned contractors to clean your businesses at night," he said. "No. We want to know what products do you buy, are you using services such as minority owned law firms, marking firms and asset management companies?"