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Diplomat or firebrand: NAACP mulls next leader

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The sudden departure of Kweisi Mfume from the NAACP came as a jolt to many civil rights advocates and scholars.

But now that Mfume is leaving, many are asking what kind of leader can excel in his footsteps or improve on his legacy.

They agree the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People needs to be ambitious and articulate in outlining specific goals on social issues such as health care, education and jobs. Whether the new leader should approach the job as a diplomat or a firebrand is up for debate.

Some NAACP supporters are rankled by President Bush, who declined to attend the group's annual convention last summer or to meet with its leaders. Yet they concede that the NAACP's agenda has come to a crawl without presidential support.

"If you had Mother Theresa heading the NAACP, unless there was a policy change at the Bush administration, then the changes will not come," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the NAACP needs a skilled negotiator at its helm.

"You need to have someone who knows how to speak eloquently about the issues that face African-Americans and other minorities, but at the same time must be able to extend the hand and try to work out any kind of differences that exist," he said.

Cummings said he was frustrated the three years Bush declined to meet with the black caucus. But this year, when violence erupted in Haiti, shortly before that nation's president was forced to flee, CBC members went to the White House and demanded a meeting with Bush.

By the time they left, they had sat down with Bush and worked out compromises on how to help the suffering people of Haiti, Cummings said.

"It calls for very careful diplomacy," he said. "It's hard to deal with Bush. I'll be the first to admit that. But we have been able though various means to get him to move."

Others think the NAACP needs a leader who can articulate a vision, no matter the means. Carol Moseley Braun, the former senator from Illinois who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, applauded Mfume for rescuing the organization from financial collapse when he took over almost nine years ago. But, she said, the next leader should work to craft a more solid legislative agenda for change.

"It's one thing to talk about the issues that affect African-Americans, but it's another to develop a specific legislative agenda, with practical issues to which politicians can be held accountable," said Braun, the nation's first African-American female senator. "The history has been to react, but you've got to come up with your own stuff."

The NAACP's Washington bureau evaluates elected officials in its annual congressional report cards. Each year, it gives members a book-thick legislative guide stating the group's agenda on issues from education to affirmative action, records of congressmen and sample letters that members can use to lobby their representatives.

NAACP leadership accuses Bush of having little interest in civil rights because he has declined to meet with them. The president declined to attend the NAACP convention, citing harsh criticism by its leaders.

"Why bother?" Braun said about future efforts to meet Bush, adding: "It's less important to sit down in the Oval Office with the president than to come up with a legislative agenda that advances ... education and health care for poor people."

Coalition builder

Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said the next NAACP president should be a coalition builder, which, she said, wasn't one of Mfume's strengths.

"They need somebody who will be accessible to other people in the civil rights leadership, who will help fashion answers to the major problems with a coalition of other leaders," said Berry, who is near completion of her second term on the commission. "I like Kweisi, I've known him for a long time. But he wasn't very accessible."

If civil rights leaders had formed a coalition, they might have been more effective at blocking Bush's appointment of judges who oppose their views on civil rights, she said.

Within the NAACP's 64-member national board of directors, people held widely different opinions on the type of leader who would be effective.

NAACP national board member Cora Breckenridge of Indiana would like the president to be someone in the old-school mold of NAACP chief of operations, the Rev. Nelson Rivers III. Perhaps Rivers himself.

Rivers is as fiery and outspoken as Bond. And like Bond's, some of Rivers' speeches this year were partisan and sharply critical of Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Rivers encouraged NAACP volunteers and members to defeat Bush's re-election bid and register black voters, "like the bill collector coming for his money."

A similarly rousing speech by Bond at the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia this summer provoked the Internal Revenue Service to review the organization's tax-exempt status as a nonpartisan organization. In August, Rivers received the organization's Medgar Evers Award of Excellence.

"Rev. Nelson Rivers is the kind of person that I, as a national board member, would look to," Breckenridge said. The NAACP president "needs to be someone who is in touch with the grassroots of this great organization."

Issues 'more subtle'

Breckenridge, 67, has been a volunteer with the NAACP since 1955. A year earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and activists were heady from that victory.

"The issues are more subtle now, and one has to understand what they are," said national board member Charles White of Kentucky, who started at the NAACP in the turbulent 1960s, when Mississippi field director Medgar Evers was killed by a sniper. "It requires education, and it requires an understanding of the issues."

It also requires a high-profile and outspoken president, a lightning rod for donations. Mfume's charisma opened a revenue stream at a time when the NAACP was $3.2 million in debt. Less than a year after Mfume's appointment in 1996, the NAACP had erased the debt.

Whoever becomes the next NAACP president should stay longer than a few years, said some.

"In the past, it was looked at as a lifetime job; once you started a commitment to civil rights and social justice, you stayed," said Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he directs the African American Leadership Institute. "You almost need to have someone who is going to say, 'I am going to have a stake in this. My career is behind me, and I'm going to invest myself in this.'"

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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