The relief was palpable at the recent board meeting of the National Associaton for the Advancement of Colored People. Gathering in Manhattan just blocks from where the group was founded in 1909, the board met to celebrate newfound stability and to elect a new chairman.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, was stepping down after three years to pursue other projects, including a memorial in Jackson, Miss., to her assassinated husband, himself an NAACP leader.
During her upbeat tenure, she hired as president Kweisi Mfume, who had headed the Congressional Black Caucus, to guide the group day-to-day, rebuild institutional support, and cut expenses.
The past three years have been good to the NAACP. After nearly imploding under previous leadership, the group now boasts a surplus of $2 million.
Still, many observers believe the NAACP remains largely irrelevant to the lives of much of black America, particularly the young and the poor. The election as chairman of Julian Bond, yet another respected veteran of the 1960s’ civil rights battles, did little to change that belief.
Even among its most die-hard members, there was grumbling at the meeting that the NAACP no longer spends much time on what it pioneered: advocating civil rights.
The election of Bond, a former Georgia state senator, to succeed Evers-Williams as chairman underscored the concern. Bond is politically sophisticated, deeply commited, and an eloquent spokesman for mainstream civil rights positions. But he is also 58, a man whose greatest triumphs came during his 20s and early 30s, when he helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and became, briefly, one of the rising stars of American politics.
On winning the chairmanship, Bond said his first priority would be raising the group’s profile. “I want us to be at the table wherever civil rights are being discussed,” he said.
Bond’s only serious opposition came from Joe Madison, a Washington, D.C., talk radio host. Madison is a longtime NAACP activist who won plaudits for spearheading its voter registration efforts a few years ago. But politically, his claim to fame was as perhaps the staunchest defender of Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who wrote an expose claiming that the Central Intelligence Agency helped funnel drugs into mostly black South Central Los Angeles. Webb was demoted and his paper has all but retracted his story, but Madison clings to it still.
The civil rights landscape has changed dramatically since the NAACP’s heyday. Its legacy rests largely on landmark court victories. But it has struggled in recent years to find a place in the public debate, members and observers say.
One persistent criticism is that the largely middle class, suburban organization is increasingly cut off from the concerns of poor blacks who would benefit most from forceful advocacy.
“The key here is returning to the mandate of civil rights,” said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. Walters cites an attempt by the NAACP last year to make an issue of discrimination in the hotel industry. At its annual convention in Pittsburgh, NAACP officials distributed a list of hotel chains that did not do enough to promote diversity. But they did not call for a boycott.
“Hotel chains - that’s a middle-class pursuit,” Walters sneered. “The folks who really need the NAACP are the folks on the bottom. And you couldn’t figure out what they were going to do. It had a nonpolitical, atmospheric kind of impact. They’ve got to get back in the harness on the issue of civil rights.”
Another question the NAACP and other civil rights groups have wrestled with for more than a decade concerns how to deal with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Bond spoke movingly about how he initially opposed the 1995 Million Man March, but changed his mind after seeing the effect of the gathering on black men. In his speech at the march, Farrakhan actually urged men to join their local NAACP, and membership rose noticeably, as Bond acknowledged.
But while praising the march, Bond went on to criticize Farrakhan, the Washington march’s primary organizer, as a racist, homophobe and anti-Semite. The accusations illustrate a deep political divide.