NEW YORK -- When Benjamin Hooks steps down as executive director of the nation's largest and oldest civil rights organization next year, he will leave an organization facing the same criticism it received when he took over: poor leadership, dwindling membership and internal bickering.
Mr. Hooks, 67, chief spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since 1977, has scheduled a news conference today in Washington to formally announce his retirement, which was submitted to the group's board of directors over the weekend.
Mr. Hooks is expected to announce that he plans to retire next year so that he can spend more time with his family and write a book on the civil rights movement. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, he was about to leave his hotel for dinner at Mr. Hooks' home.
Mr. Hooks' resignation and the failure of several prominent members to get re-elected to the 64-member board over the weekend in New York have touched off a round of finger pointing among board members and open attacks on board chairman William Gibson, a South Carolina dentist.
"This is not a policy fight over civil rights," says Julian Bond, the former Georgia state legislator who failed to be re-elected Saturday after nine years on the board. "This argument has nothing to do with approaches to affirmative action or any substantial civil rights issues.
"It is a traditional struggle that you find in any organization between a chairman and an executive [director], with the chairman wanting to be the executive."
A source close to the board says of Mr. Gibson: "He's grown progressively worse. He's determined that he's going to be a national leader and he's going to use this organization to achieve that purpose."
In a telephone interview yesterday from Greenville, S.C., Mr. Gibson denied there was a rift between him and Mr. Hooks.
"There's no problem between me and Ben that I know of," Mr. Gibson said.
Despite Mr. Gibson's denial, some board members who agreed to discuss the conflict on condition of anonymity said Mr. Gibson had undercut Mr. Hooks' role as chief spokesman for the organization.
Mr. Gibson has usually appeared at most major NAACP announcements and assumed a highly visible role in the organization's negotiations with Hollywood studios over their hiring practices.
The jockeying for public attention comes at a time when the organization, which was at the forefront of efforts to eliminate discriminatory laws, has come under criticism for failing adequately to address subtle forms of discrimination in the 1980s and 1990s.
"The role of the NAACP is more critical now than it's ever been, primarily because the dimensions of our problems are so much more sophisticated," says a former longtime board member who lives in the Midwest. "The last thing we need to have is a divided house."
Division is only one problem facing the civil rights group, founded in 1909 and now headquartered in .Baltimore.
Although Mr. Gibson says the NAACP membership stands at 500,000, other insiders say a more accurate figure is less than half of that number. And even Mr. Gibson acknowledges the organization has had difficulty attracting younger members, many of whom don't appreciate the group's early struggle to obtain equal opportunity for African-Americans.
Outgoing NAACP national president Hazel Dukes says last weekend's board meeting, in which she also was not re-elected to the board, will hamper NAACP national fund-raising efforts.
"Getting Julian Bond and Hazel Dukes off the board will not help a thing," she said yesterday. "I've had people calling me all day, saying, 'Don't ask me for anything [financial] for the NAACP.' "
In a move that caught many board members by surprise, Percy Sutton, the former Manhattan borough president and prominent New York businessman, resigned from the board Saturday to protest what he said was a power grab by Mr. Gibson.
Mr. Gibson rallied enough board members last year to repeal a board-imposed rule that would restrict the board chairman to serving only two three-year terms. Mr. Gibson was elected chairman in 1985 and would have been ineligible to serve a third term. Mr. Bond and Mrs. Dukes opposed him.