NAACP faces troubles behind its proud name Chavis seeks new blood, money


INDIANAPOLIS -- With a rich legacy of achievement stretching from W. E. B. DuBois to Thurgood Marshall and beyond, the NAACP, which wrapped up its 84th annual convention here yesterday, appears to be a civil rights colossus.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is, as speaker after speaker reminded the convention's 3,200 delegates, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, with 2,200 branches and half a million members in all 50 states.

But the NAACP is also an underfinanced, if exceptionally resilient, patchwork of volunteers that depends on the good will of aging civil rights warriors to do its grass-roots work.

Fewer than a dozen of its branches can afford paid staff. (The Baltimore branch is one of the few that can.) Many branches operate out of a volunteer president's living room.

Even at NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore, the membership division has no computer system to keep track of its 500,000 faithful. A routine application for a $10 annual membership can take three months from initial request to receipt of a signed membership card.

The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the civil rights group's new executive director, faces significant challenges in trying to revitalize the NAACP:

* How to modernize and rejuvenate the civil rights group, unlocking its immense potential for grass-roots action, without alienating the stalwart volunteers who are its lifeblood.

* How to strengthen the NAACP financially without becoming beholden to corporate interests that would foot much of the bill.

Dr. Chavis' coup at his first convention was to bring cash to the table: $2 million from the foundation begun by the late Reginald F. Lewis, the Baltimore-born richest black man in America and a Chavis intimate.

The NAACP leader intends to use the gift as seed money toward a $100 million endowment that would assure the financial stability of the group, which has a $13 million annual budget, well into the future.

Dr. Chavis also came bearing a lucrative "fair-share" agreement with Flagstar Cos. Inc. that sets corporate targets for black participation. Allegations of racial discrimination at Flagstar's Denny's restaurant chain have been a public relations disaster for the corporation.

A side agreement with Flagstar, the details of which have yet to be worked out, provides for the NAACP to do random testing for discrimination at Denny's. In exchange, Flagstar would help install a computer network linking some NAACP branches with Baltimore headquarters -- a big step toward the modernization that Dr. Chavis needs to foster.

Other corporate-style plans are afoot. As part of an ambitious drive to double its membership -- and to increase needed dues revenue -- the NAACP may engage in some slick "value-added remarketing."

The civil rights group has commissioned a prototype of the NAACP Membership Power Card. The card, if adopted, would offer members the option of getting airline, hotel and rental car discounts; cut-rate long-distance phone service; free entrance to warehouse club chain, and access to a 24-hour civil rights hotline, along with membership.

"Groups and associations have long ago discovered that today's member is looking for more for their dues dollar," says a Power Card prospectus circulated at the convention. "These new discounted benefits give you something new to say when asked, 'What have you done for me lately?' "

Isazetta A. Spikes, the NAACP's membership director, called Power Card "a strategy for the '90's.

"Tradition is wonderful, but you have to grow at some point," she told a workshop for NAACP volunteers. "If we want to get off this [membership] plateau, we'll have to do things a little differently. We've got to use this as a civil rights tool. It will make the association more effective."

"What about attracting the single mother of five with income under $25,000?" one member asked.

Ms. Spikes replied that black urban professionals with incomes over $50,000 are a fast-growing group that the NAACP needs to target.

'Where the money is'

"When they asked Jesse James why he robbed banks, he said that's where the money is. We'll still have a $10 membership. If you're on welfare or 'no-fare' you can still join the NAACP for $10," she said.

In marketing terms, the NAACP is demographically appealing, according to a membership profile. NAACP households boast average income of $44,400 a year (about twice the national average for blacks), more than two-thirds of members have attended college, and nearly one-third are professionals or managers.

In civil rights terms, however, the profile may be troubling: NAACP members tend to be upper-middle-class and middle-aged (49.6 years old on average) while the 30 million African-Americans the group aims to represent are generally low- to moderate-income and young (27.9 years old).

At 45, Dr. Chavis is the youngest NAACP executive director ever. He has accented the generational change he brings to the NAACP by holding a summit for youth gang leaders and by seeking out the most violence-plagued area of almost every city he visits to chat with what he calls "the brothers and sisters in the 'hood."

Yet standing at Dr. Chavis' side, both in the 'hood and at Capitol Hill press conferences, is often a member of the NAACP's old guard. He is Dr. William F. Gibson, 62, the Greenville, S.C., dentist who is chairman of the 64-member board of directors, itself dominated by civil rights warhorses.

Despite critics' fears that Dr. Gibson may stifle Dr. Chavis by trying to micro-manage the NAACP, the new executive director insists that he wants a strong chairman. He pulls Dr. Gibson to his side at every photo opportunity.

Besides pledging a more youthful and active organization, Dr. Chavis has also advocated a more diverse, multicultural NAACP that would reach out to Latinos and other potential allies.

The NAACP leader speaks Spanish and is married to a Dominican, Martha Rivera Chavis.

Dr. Chavis also wants the NAACP to become a player in African affairs. The convention cheered Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress, and agreed to help monitor next year's South African elections.

But delegates showed little inclination to reach out to other groups. They overwhelmingly opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would increase commerce with Mexico, because they feared that it would cost black Americans jobs.

Adoption limits

They rejected transracial adoption, voting down a resolution supporting adoption of black children by families of other races when foster care was the only alternative.

"Jews don't let blacks come in and adopt their children, Indians don't let blacks adopt their children. Why should we let anyone come in and adopt our children?" Virginia delegate Cynthia Downs asked the convention.

And when an Ohio delegate proposed to amend a resolution backing next month's 30th anniversary March on Washington to include Latinos and American Indians, there were shouts of "No, it's for blacks!" The amendment was dropped.

However, the convention was notable for its general lack of rancor and serious disagreements. Dr. Chavis appears embarked on a honeymoon of uncertain duration during which he can start the tough job of shaping the NAACP in his own image.

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