The NAACP is maintaining a discreet silence regarding effort to find a successor to executive director Benjamin F. Hooks, who retires next month after 15 years as head of the nation's oldest civil rights organization. But recent news reports have sparked intense speculation over who the Baltimore-based group's next leader will be.
Those reportedly under consideration include former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, former Pennsylvania congressman William H. Gray III, former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson and anti-apartheid lobbyist Randall Robinson. Other names that have been mentioned publicly are Joseph Madison, who has headed the NAACP's voter registration projects, and civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis.
Whoever is chosen will need impeccable organizational and fund-raising skills plus an inspirational style to galvanize rank-and-file members in hundreds of local NAACP chapters across the country. The organization may also be weighing the benefits of passing the generational torch. In recent years the NAACP has come under increasing criticism from younger blacks who question its continued relevance in the post-civil rights era.
Some of the names being mentioned probably aren't realistic prospects. Mr. Robinson, for example, has said repeatedly that he isn't interested. Mr. Gray, who left Congress to head the United Negro College Fund, seems content in his new job. Likewise it's difficult to imagine Maynard Jackson forsaking his beloved Atlanta.
Mr. Chavis, a minister whose involvement in civil rights goes back to the Wilmington, Del., riots of the early 1970s, presently heads the United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice. He is less well known than the others but seems to be the only one actively campaigning for the job.
Jesse Jackson is another story. He has the charisma and big reputation to bring instant visibility to the NAACP. But he already heads up the Rainbow Coalition, which has its own agenda, and also serves as "shadow senator" from Washington, D.C., a sort of paid lobbyist for District statehood.
That undoubtedly will lead some to question whether he could handle the added responsibility of running the NAACP -- or whether, if he were to try to wear all three hats, his other duties would conflict with an NAACP board that is famous for jealously guarding its policy-setting prerogative.
The NAACP hopes to name Mr. Hooks' successor by the end of March. Our one caveat is that no women have been mentioned so far, even though several potentially strong female contenders come readily to mind -- Eleanor Holmes Norton, Marian Wright Edelman, Faye Wattleton, Johnetta Cole, for example. It would be a pity if the nation's most important civil rights group were to leave the impression it had failed to consider such outstanding individuals merely because of their gender.