INDIANAPOLIS -- The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. closed his first convention as executive director of the NAACP yesterday, calling it an "unprecedented display of African-American unity."
"It's an old mission, but it's a new vision," Dr. Chavis told the 3,200 delegates. "I'm proud to stand with you -- not ahead of you, but with you."
The debut of Dr. Chavis, 45, the group's youngest executive director ever, was a highlight of the 84th annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was named to the post in April.
During the meeting, delegates also cheered appearances by South African leader Nelson Mandela; U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus; and Lani Guinier, President Clinton's abandoned nominee to be the government's top civil rights official.
Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary expressed the Clinton administration's support for civil rights, but they were received coolly by delegates still smarting from the Guinier episode.
"You have to hang with this guy," Mrs. O'Leary, one of five blacks in the Clinton Cabinet, urged the convention. "He's going to give us the opportunity to ensure that everything will change. . . . Stand behind this man because he's going to stand with us."
Mr. Gore's appearance raised concerns when he dropped a mention of Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, the Clinton nominee for U.S. surgeon general, from his prepared text.
Dr. Chavis and Mr. Mfume made clear that the Elders nomination, which is under attack by conservatives who oppose her support for condom distribution in the schools, will be the administration's next litmus test with civil rights groups.
"There is not even a crack of daylight between us and the NAACP in our support for the Elders nomination," Mr. Mfume said.
Yesterday's final convention session was marked by wrangling over a resolution to give the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore half of any bequests made to NAACP branches.
"If we are going to survive, we have to have something to survive with," said Annie B. Martin, president of the New York City branch. "We have to pay our way here, keep branches open, and we can't do that on air. Freedom is not free."
But Leroy Warren, a Silver Spring, Md., member of the national board of directors, said headquarters must be assured of a share in funds.
"It's your responsibility to hold [the board] accountable, but you can't anybody accountable if we're in Chapter 11 bankruptcy," he said.
The convention approved the policy on sharing bequests as well as a provision that earmarks $6.10 of every $10 membership for the national office. The 500,000-member NAACP has been based in Northwest Baltimore since 1986.