NAACP members ponder Jesse Jackson as leader


WASHINGTON -- As the NAACP searches for a new executive director, a single question is occupying many of its members: Would the Rev. Jesse Jackson be a good fit with the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization?

To be sure, Mr. Jackson is only one of a handful of candidates to succeed the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, who is stepping down from the post at the end of this month after heading the organization for 15 years. But Mr. Jackson's candidacy has dominated the discussions in local chapters and among high officials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mr. Jackson will say publicly only that he has had some discussions about the job, but others say he is running hard for it. At an awards dinner at the end of January in Pasadena, Calif., Mr. Jackson made a point of pressing his candidacy with the two dozen board members who were there, one said.

Mr. Jackson declined to be interviewed, but friends said he viewed the position as one that would provide a platform to solidify his leadership role in the nation.

"It would also make it more difficult to marginalize him," said one associate who insisted on anonymity. Friends described Mr. Jackson, who has twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination, as eager for a position of greater visibility.

Mr. Jackson holds the position of shadow senator for the District of Columbia, a largely undefined role that is supposed to help the nation's capital win statehood and provide a non-voting presence in Congress.

Roger Wilkins, a political science professor at George Mason University, whose uncle Roy Wilkins served as the association's executive director from 1955 to 1977, said he thought Mr. Jackson would be a splendid choice.

But it is unclear to many others whether Mr. Jackson would be a good fit with the organization, which has always operated as a cautious deliberate body. Even some of his supporters acknowledge that his charge-ahead, highly personal style might have to be trimmed to conform to the group's ways.

The news of Mr. Jackson's candidacy has touched off a flood of letters and telephone calls to the organization's Baltimore headquarters, said several staff aides. Most of the callers opposed his selection, they said.

The search is being conducted by a committee that will forward one or more names to the association's 64-member board within 30 days.

The other candidates for the post include Delano E. Lewis, president of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. in Washington; Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., an official with the United Church of Christ who was involved in desegregating the South; Joseph Madison, a board member of the association who now has a radio talk show in Washington; Earl T. Shinhoster, a regional administrator for the association based in Atlanta; and Jewell Jackson McCabe, the founder of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in New York.

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