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Next NAACP President must have Special Qualities
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA, Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 12/7/2004

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The person who succeeds Kweisi Mfume as president of the NAACP must be versatile, equally comfortable protesting in the streets as wielding power and influence in the corporate suites, Civil Rights Movement experts say.

“We need a person who is equally comfortable in a pulpit, a corporate boardroom and meeting the press, who can talk with ex-offenders and Nobel laureates and who appreciates the importance of doing both,” says Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the law school at the University of California-Berkeley.

Mfume resigned last week after frequent feuds with Board Chairman Julian Bond. When he first took office nearly nine years ago, the former five-term Congressman from Baltimore was replacing Benjamin Chavis, who had mired the organization in a sexual harassment suit that was settled out of court and had, with Board Chairman William Gibson, plunged the organization more than $3 million in debt.

''When I arrived, the NAACP was mired in debt and steeped in doubt,'' Mfume said at a news conference. ''There is [now] $15 million in cash reserves and a flourishing endowment of several million more. I've had the honor and the privilege to help revive and restore this great organization, which has become an American institution.''

The improved finances should help Mfume’s successor.

“With a much stronger financial footing, the association is poised to create a much bolder advocacy-oriented movement that shakes up things from the school board to the Congress and everything in between,” says Edley. “[Former Democratic presidential candidate] Howard Dean showed that you can raise money in small amounts to build a large movement. And with resources like that, the NAACP could create a cadre of community-based leadership that would generate a civil rights Renaissance.”

However, lack of funds was only one of Mfume’s problems.

“Mfume did a great job of raising money and he’s got the right values and everything else, but I think he was not effective as a leader of the NAACP and as a policy player in national policy because he was so inaccessible,” says Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights. “Anyone who is in policy-making or civil rights or government said the whole time he was there, they had trouble getting in touch with him.”

Berry says the next NAACP president should focus on issues such as the continued assault on affirmative action, federal judicial appointments, the AIDS crisis, the decline of Black students in professional schools, and the high Black unemployment rate.

Charles Ogletree, the noted professor at the Harvard Law School, observes that a major reason activists were successful in the 1950s and 1960s was because of their close ties to Black churches and involving ministers, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Andrew Young, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Hosea Williams, Rev. James Bevel and Rev. John Lewis.

“It needs to go back to its historic base and try to re-energize its relationship with the Black church as one of our historic organizing centers,” Ogletree suggests. “I think there was the sense that the mission of the 20th century of legal and racial segregation was accomplished and we didn’t realize there was really a lot of additional work to be done. Now it’s time to go back to revisit those principals of a social and economic agenda.”

Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, agrees.

“Post the King era, we’ve moved from a religious-based to an economics-based [movement] and so we have more millionaires, but we have less morals. But I think there needs to be a reconnect of the synergy with the religious community, because quite frankly, that’s how the Republicans won – on morals,” says Bryant, 33, who served as director of the NAACP Youth and College Division early in Mfume’s tenure. “The NAACP is going to have to juxtapose those realities. We are the moral conscience; not just by our words, but by our actions.”

According to an Edison Mitofsky election exit poll, when asked why they reported for a particular president in November, 22 percent of voters cited moral values as their top choice, followed by the economy/jobs (20 percent) and terrorism (19 percent). Like the general population, many Blacks are conservative on social issues. A Zogby International poll showed that 63 percent of African-Americans polled are pro-life. A New York Times poll a year ago showed that 75 percent of Blacks oppose same-sex marriages.

Though African-Americans are conservative on moral issues, they are liberal on civil rights issues and overwhelmingly support traditional civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP and the National Urban League.

The NAACP claims a membership of 500,000, which would make it the largest Black organization in the U.S.

“This is a clear opportunity to show America that Black America is no longer a monolithic people,” Bryant says. “We’re not all Democrats. There’s a growing number of Republicans; that we’re not all heterosexual, but there are gay African-Americans and I think that it’s an urgent imperative for the NAACP to expand its order so that all of Black America will know that this is a home and that the next person will have a much broader shoulder.”

Casting too broad of a net, however, could hamper efforts to expand support for the NAACP. Support for homosexual relations between consenting adults has varied from a low of 32 percent in 1986 to a high of 60 percent in May, shortly after the Supreme Court struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law. Citing Bush’s support for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriages, some Black abandoned Democrats in Ohio to support the Republican candidate for president.

The NAACP should also establish an economics agenda beyond its annual corporate and hotel report cards, Ogletree says. “It’s time to make sure this major civil rights organization is seated at the table where the economic benefits are being distributed,” he says.

According to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, annual Black spending power stood at $688 billion in 2002 and is projected to reach $921 billion in 2008.

Ogletree down plays report of strife between Mfume and Julian Bond.

“To me, the real story is how two strong-minded, incredibly gifted, committed people could work together so well,” he says. “It’s important to have organizations with strong independent presidents to get things done and it is equally essential to have a clear unambiguous chairman who’s going to fight the public and private battles to make sure the organization has its place at the table where resources are being redistributed. I saw it as a strength; not as a conflict.”

Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor, disagrees.

“There’s a problem with that,” Walters says. “I think the CEO ought to take the point. This is the ironic thing about the NAACP. The chairman of the board had a stronger persona than the CEO. I’ve argued that they ought to have a much more aggressive CEO and that will take a lot of the heat off of the chairman of the board to be the out front person. It also would lessen, I think, some of the acrimony.”

Bond says a search committee will be formed early next year, but the 64-member NAACP board will not rush into hiring a new president/CEO. General Counsel Dennis Hayes, who will serve as interim president, says he will not apply for the permanent position. The new president/CEO is expected to be hired by the NAACP annual convention in July.

The key for who ever gets elected president will be their ability to walk in unity with the chair, says Ramona Edelin, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

“We need someone who will complement the strength of the chairman and members of the board and who will be effective at organizing around an agenda, both within the NAACP and within the larger African-American and African-descendants global context,” Edelin says. “This must be someone who’s experienced as an organizer and who is willing to roll up their sleeves and actually do the how to. Hopefully, there will be a shared vision. I don’t think there’s been a time in history in which we’ve needed a clear agenda in a more compelling way.”


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