Ending a bitter and draining power struggle, Myrlie EversWilliams was elected Saturday to lead the NAACP out of its decline and heal the venerable institution’s financial and emotional wounds.
The 61-year-old wife of slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers, completed her improbable rise by defeating former chairman William Gibson by a vote of 30-29.
The vote came as the climax in a day of sharp attacks on Gibson and his management of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.
“I have said that Medgar died for the NAACP and I have said I will live for the NAACP,” Evers-Williams said.
“It was a difficult decision for me to make to run for this office. But it is something I knew I had to do because I love the NAACP. I knew I had to do what I could do to save it.”
Gibson could not be reached for immediate comment on his loss or the charges against him, which he complained earlier were unfair and untrue.
With her election intact, EversWilliams immediately pledged to “clean house” in the organization’s headquarters and by appointing new people to such key board posts as treasurer.
“It is an emotional time for me, but I can’t be emotional for long because there is too much to do. We have to clean house. Where’s my broom?”
Gibson’s defeat seemed unlikely a week ago. As late as Tuesday, Evers-Williams’ supporters said only 25 board members favored dumping the long-serving chairman who amassed a large, and loyal following.
But as the meeting unfolded the rank and file was solidly against Gibson, 61, even shouting down supporters who rose to defend him.
The demonstrations by unhappy members appeared to be part of a well-orchestrated campaign by Evers-Williams. Copies or critical news stories were handed out throughout the meeting. Outside the meeting room, a tape of a “60 Minutes” report that raised questions about Gibson’s spending played continuously.
In the end, Gibson was overwhelmed by a the weight of charges that have been circulating and intensifying for months.
His critics complained that Gibson had claimed more than $300,000 in improper reimbursements from NAACP accounts and that he appointed cronies to the board so the practice could continue.
Gibson has repeatedly denied the charges, and in a letter to board members, he said he was a victim of “scurrilous personal attacks” by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carl Rowan.
Rowan’s columns, which helped to fuel the campaign against Gibson, accused him of “double-dipping” on his NAACP expense accounts, taking $24,000 meant for the South Carolina NAACP and running up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges for limousines, hotel suites and an expensive briefcase.
“I will not slip off into the night when my name, and the organization I love, are under attack,” Gibson wrote. “Now, my election as chair has become a personal struggle between Rowan’s vindictive vow to `get rid’ of me and my determination to continue leading this association.”
That defense not sway the board, however. The vote to make EversWilliams chairwoman came in less than two hours. The decision was greeted by cheers when news of the vote trickled out of the closed board meeting about 4:30 p.m.
“We’re elated,” said Maryland state NAACP President Gregg Wims. “The stockholders, the $10 members, have prevailed. Those members were here and they were angry, and now we’ve all won.”
Gibson, a dentist from Greenville, S.C., had been under increasing pressure to step down from a position he held for 10 years.
Critics, including a vocal group on the 64-member national NAACP board, blamed Gibson for the organization’s financial collapse, its inability to expand its membership and its loss of influence in the AfricanAmerican community.
That pressure intensified as the national meeting approached and the stage was set when Gibson first lost a vote of no-confidence during the general membership meeting.
Gibson’s critics gained strength through the day, moving at one point to replace NAACP President Rupert Richardson because they believed she was conducting the meeting in Gibson’s favor.
“Dr. Gibson and the board hold these funds in trust and they are not to be squandered,” said Glenwood P. Roane, who represented the Fairfax, Va. chapter. “We’re tired of this.”
Like the chapter president from Akron, Ohio, Roane said his chapter was prepared to donated $10,000 only if Gibson resigned or was defeated.
Going into the meeting, Gibson and his allies believed he’d prevail. That notion was dashed as members stepped to the microphone.
“Pennsylvania is solidly behind … brother Gibson resigning,” said Thornhill Crosby, president of the NAACP’s Philadelphia chapter.
From a Memphis member: “Unless we resolve this issue today, I fear all is lost. For our financial stability and for the future, Bill Gibson must go.”
Calls for Gibson’s ouster came from chapters in New York, Apex, N.C., Monroe, Miss. and San Jose. They came from Akron and from Cambridge, Mass.
Hundreds of supporters for Evers-Williams hoisted signs that read, “Clean house now” and “Gibson loves $$$$ We love NAACP,” and they shouted down speakers who defended Gibson.
At the end, despite the bitter and at times personal battle for the chair, Evers-Williams urged members to look forward.
“It is a time to heal our wounds. can we do it? my answer is yes. We will do it because we are family and because we believe that this organization.”