NAACP Urged Into New Role

PHILADELPHIA – On July 11 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, NAACP chairman Julian Bond rose to address the 95th annual convention of the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization.

Bond excoriated President Bush and the Republicans, accusing the party of appealing “to the dark underside of American culture” and relying on “the politics of racial division to win elections.”

Since that evening in Philadelphia, a lot has changed in the world of the NAACP, and most of it for the worse. A series of events has conspired to raise questions about the group’s direction, and its clout.

On Oct. 28, the Internal Revenue Service, citing Bond’s harsh words, announced that it would investigate whether the organization had violated its tax-exempt status by engaging in partisan political activity.

On Nov. 2, Bush, who had described his relationship with NAACP leaders as “basically nonexistent,” won a second term, faring slightly better among African American voters than he had four years earlier.

On Nov. 30, Kweisi Mfume announced his resignation as the NAACP’s own president effective at year’s end, denying reports of a rift with the board.

Some NAACP leaders say that what confronts the organization now is a process of leadership transition and nothing more. There is no crisis, they say, no need for prolonged reevaluation and reassessment.

But others argue that the events of the fall highlight the need for the group to start redefining its role in the society.

“This is a very critical time,” said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter. “It’s devastating to lose a leadership voice at the beginning of Bush’s second term, when we’ll see an all-out drive to work against the civil rights agenda and appoint three or four new members of the Supreme Court.”

When Mfume took over in 1996, the issue facing the NAACP was survival. The Baltimore-based national office was $3.2 million in debt and tarnished by scandal. On his watch, finances were straightened out and integrity restored.

Now the challenge for the organization is to reassert its relevance, to show that it still matters – in an era when its traditional allies in the Democratic Party have little to say about the shape of national policy.

“Easy access to the levers of power in Washington used to be the NAACP’s currency,” said Ronald Walters, who directs the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. “It doesn’t have that access anymore. The NAACP is faced with a political culture that is growing more conservative by the minute.”

Last month, Bush ended four years of shunning the NAACP by meeting with Mfume at the White House. Mfume said he hoped the private session would “begin the process for future dialogue between the administration and the NAACP.”

The organization faces a major internal problem, as well.

It remains widely respected among African Americans old enough to have lived through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s and has enjoyed something of a revival among the young.

But according to the group’s own numbers, only 14 percent of its 500,000 members are in their 30s and 40s, prime years for raising children, earning money, and becoming community leaders.

“We simply have to do better with this age group,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “These people have to feel that the NAACP has relevance to their lives. Why do people join organizations? Because they see themselves getting something. Or they see the organization doing something that benefits them or people they care about.”

Many analysts and activists want the NAACP to move in a direction that is both less partisan and more aggressive, with renewed emphasis on education and economics.

“Public education is the civil rights issue of our times,” said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former NAACP staffer. “The NAACP has abandoned the education front, which is pretty ironic since it brought the Brown v. Board of Education case.”

Others, including Mondesire, would like the national leadership to take more direction from some of the 1,600 local chapters, which range from large and active to tiny and all but moribund.

“The NAACP should develop an agenda around grassroots efforts, connecting local issues with national ones,” said Fredrick Harris, director of the Frederick Douglass Institute at the University of Rochester. “It should focus not so much on legislative initiatives, which aren’t going anywhere, and go back to the tradition of protest.”

One sign of how unwelcoming the national political arena has become for the NAACP is the recent change in the chairmanship of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Bush replaced Mary Frances Berry, a black liberal, with Gerald Reynolds, a black conservative who opposes affirmative action.

Another indication is the ongoing IRS investigation, which ultimately could deprive the NAACP of the ability to accept tax-deductible donations.

Bond has promised a vigorous fight against the probe. He calls it “a partisan attempt to still our voices” and has refused to tone down his rhetoric.

“We object to policies, not to parties,” Bond said in a statement Tuesday, “and when we think the policies are wrong, we’re not afraid to say so.”

An IRS spokesman said in October that about 60 groups were being investigated to see whether they engaged in partisan activity. According to the NAACP, the government agency requested information about Bond’s speech and the entire Philadelphia convention.

Mark Everson, the IRS commissioner, would not discuss details of the probe, but said that “any suggestion that the IRS has tilted its audit activities for political purposes is repugnant and groundless.”

As a 501©(3) organization, the NAACP is supposed to refrain from partisan politics, although it is free to engage in issue-advocacy.

While the IRS investigation will consume the NAACP’s time, energy and money, some observers think the situation might inure to the group’s benefit.

“To African Americans, it looks like the Bush administration is going after the NAACP,” said Davis Bositis of the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which works on minority issues. “In that sense, it’s a plus; it will rally the troops.”

Said U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa.: “You can’t agitate against the people in power and expect to be treated with kid gloves. But I can assure you of this: The NAACP will outlive this administration and the next 10 administrations after that.”

The nine-member search committee to find the NAACP’s next president is headed by Bond and includes several outsiders, among them Jack Kemp, the former Republican vice presidential candidate.

Members are already getting a lot of advice, solicited and otherwise, about what kind of person they should seek out.

Darryl Rouson, a lawyer who heads the St. Petersburg, Fla., branch, wants someone not closely identified with the Democratic Party; Mfume was a Democratic congressman until he took the job.

“Our true mission is to speak truth to power, no matter what party is in power,” said Rouson, a political independent who voted for Bush. “We can do it more effectively if we’re seen as builders of a powerful coalition rather than the perpetrators of ad hominem verbal attacks.”

Cummings, who agreed that the NAACP “probably has been too involved in electoral politics,” said its next president must work on the issues that “go to the center of people’s lives” – quoting the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.

The need for the NAACP to keep remaking itself was spelled out by Mfume himself in his farewell speech.

“The future that is before all of us requires that we find new ways to change old habits,” the departing president said. “Only by conforming to the reality of today’s battlefield do we avoid being consumed by it.”