Bruce S. Gordon was, as always, tactful and circumspect in explaining why he was bowing out as NAACP president after only 19 months at the helm. He would only say that there were differences between himself and others in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; presumably, that meant his differences were with some on the organization's 64-member national board. His low-key pronouncement was in keeping with the no-nonsense, corporate approach to civil rights advocacy that he brought to the organization.
Unfortunately, that was and is the problem. The standard knock against the nation's oldest civil rights organization is that it's too old, staid and tradition-bound. But that's not the real problem, and Mr. Gordon's departure underscores this. The NAACP's embrace of showy, symbolic fights and - despite its momentary d?tente with President Bush last summer at its convention - its blatant partisan support of any and all Democrats do little to solve the mountainous problems of drugs, crime, gangs and soaring joblessness among young African-Americans, or the astronomical black incarceration rate. Nor have the annual report cards that Mr. Gordon and NAACP officials issue on racial progress in the financial services, auto retail, telecommunications, advertising and marketing industries; procurement and vendor relations; and foundation and corporate giving.
The NAACP's retreat from visible, cutting-edge activism on thorny racial and economic problems can be directly traced to the fight against legal segregation in the 1960s, the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the class divisions that have surfaced within black America, and the blossoming of the black middle class. The NAACP became the political springboard for this rapidly emerging black middle class. It fought hard to get more blacks in corporate management, in elite universities and in front of and behind TV cameras; to elect more black Democrats; to secure more business loans; and to oppose the Confederate flag.
But these battles do not have the remotest bearing on the lives of the black poor, who have grown more numerous and more desperate - trapped in segregated or resegregated neighborhoods; shuttling their children off to abominably failing public schools; plagued by crime, drugs and gangs; and stuffed into jail cells.
NAACP leaders are sandwiched between the evolving political trends and shifting fortunes of the black middle class (upward) and the black poor (downward). A tilt toward a hard-edged, activist agenda carries the risk of alienating the corporate donors and Democratic politicians whom the NAACP leaders carefully cultivate.
Even the NAACP's proposed move of its national office from Baltimore to an economically distressed area of Washington hasn't been without controversy. Some of the controversy has to do with putting the national office in a poorer section of the city, and concerns about what that would do for the organization's image and national stature.
Mr. Gordon is only the latest self-inflicted casualty of the NAACP's ongoing internal battle to regain its leadership legs as the voice of black America. His corporate management style and philosophy, which many NAACP board members apparently resented, was even more ill-suited to tackle the chronic problems of urban poverty and discrimination.
The NAACP can reclaim its mantle of cutting-edge leadership and activism by mounting a no-holds-barred assault on the chronic problems of black joblessness, the lack of comprehensive health care for the poor, and grossly underserved, underperforming inner-city schools. Even some NAACP officials were quoted as saying that they need to recommit to social activism.
Finding a new leader who can bridge the gulf between the two black Americas - one poor, frustrated and alienated, the other prosperous and upwardly achieving - is a daunting challenge for the NAACP.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social commentator, and the author of "The Emerging Black GOP Majority." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.