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Scandal at top of NAACP felt little by local organizations

Allegations of persistent sexual favoritism by then-NAACP President Kweisi Mfume have barely caused a ripple among some of the organization's branches - illustrating, some members say, the large disconnect between the national organization and its local leaders.

"We have not had any inquiry from any member," said Bertha Gaffney Gorman, an NAACP legislative advocate in California. "No member of the Legislature or any people I interact with have even asked, 'What is that about?' Not a single one."

Though the allegations against Mfume prompted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to reportedly pay a settlement of about $100,000 to a former female employee, many local leaders in the nation's oldest civil rights organization say they are relieved that the public relations damage isn't worse.

"I don't think this is going to make anyone stop supporting the fight for civil rights and human dignity," said the Rev. R. L. White, president of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP. "The thing is, the people who love the NAACP know that we are bigger than the scandals. We know we have to overcome those scandals by the work we have to do in the local communities."

Internal reports

The allegations against Mfume are detailed in two internal reports prepared for NAACP board members. The reports - which discuss the accusations but do not draw any conclusions about whether they are true - describe a culture of favoritism and sexual harassment where Mfume hired and promoted women with whom he had close relations.

Such allegations are reminiscent of the sex scandal and $300,000 settlement payment that ousted Mfume's predecessor, Benjamin F. Chavis, and stained the NAACP's image.

One difference between now and a decade ago is that the allegations against Chavis became public while he was still president, forcing his departure. Mfume resigned in November, citing personal reasons. These latest allegations did not become public until six months later.

Mfume campaign

The recent dispute has surfaced as the NAACP searches for someone to replace Mfume. Political experts say the publicity could hurt Mfume's campaign for the U.S. Senate and is another embarrassment to an organization struggling to remain relevant in the post-civil rights era.

Mfume, 56, has repeatedly denied the claims, saying the release of confidential documents to the media is an effort to squeeze him out of the Senate race.

In Mfume's hometown of Baltimore, local NAACP branch members have defended the former congressman and city councilman.

"We've gotten not one disgruntled call," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, who heads the Baltimore branch. "People are calling, but they want to know how to volunteer for his campaign."

Unwanted publicity

Other NAACP members say that while the allegations are bad, the publicity is worse.

"It really destroys the association to a certain point," said Jimmy Griffin, who heads the Waterbury, Conn., branch of the NAACP and is a former president of the Connecticut state conference. "The negative stuff is not good for an organization that is supposed to be fighting for civil rights."

While Griffin said the settlement was an unfortunate financial loss to an organization seeking to boost membership, he would rather the NAACP handle the complaint quietly than bring further negative public scrutiny upon the group.

"I think it's an unfortunate situation and it's a waste of money that could have been used for other resources," he said. "But at the same time, we have to weigh these things."

Independent branches

The impact on local branches has been minimal, largely because of their independent nature, members said. In many ways they operate separately, with local branches - which are nearly always made up of volunteers - following national guidelines but setting their own agendas.

Ron Walters, political science professor and director of the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Institute, describes the NAACP as two separate organizations - the national office in Baltimore and the 1,700 chapters.

"A lot of what happens in Baltimore is image," he said. "The local branches are concerned with voter registration, taking care of people who feel they have been discriminated against, issues of police brutality."

'Weighty issues'

In California, the killing of a 13-year-old by Los Angeles police prompted a public outcry led by the NAACP. The state chapter took a groundbreaking stance in support of gay marriage. And branches with active memberships have pushed for black representation on city boards and filed discrimination lawsuits against city governments and school districts.

"Those are very weighty issues," said Walters. "They don't have time to worry about image-oriented problems in the national office - who is the leader and what he says - that's not weighty stuff. Weighty stuff is that a kid got shot by a cop."

Some local NAACP leaders describe a distant relationship with the national headquarters. They complain that national leaders visit local branches infrequently and spend much of their time soliciting donations from corporations. Of the $30 membership dues collected by local branches, more than half goes to the national headquarters.

"There is national involvement, but probably not to the satisfaction of everyone," said John White, the national NAACP spokesman. "It depends on what the branches do. We have regional directors who do stay in touch with the local branches."

Inevitable turmoil

Other members suggest that local branches have resigned themselves to the inevitability of turmoil but choose to focus locally because they believe in the ultimate goal of fighting for civil rights.

"It happens in Congress, in mayors' offices and other organizations," said Griffin. "It's not something confined to the NAACP. ... So you try to improve the situation and keep on pushing."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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