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A New NAACP in Fighting Trim


The NAACP wrapped up its annual convention in Indianapolis Thursday with its membership energized behind a new leader, a broader mandate and an endowment launched with $2 million from the foundation set up by the late Reginald Lewis.

For the moment, at least, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group appears to have put behind it the flap over executive director Benjamin Chavis' endorsement of Charlotte as the site for a new football team -- a misstep that turned into a public relations nightmare. Now the decks are cleared for the NAACP to get down to the real business of mapping a workable strategy for black empowerment in the 1990s.

Mr. Chavis' goal for the convention just ended was ambitious: "We plan to refocus the civil rights agenda for America," he said before leaving for Indianapolis last week. When Mr. Chavis took the helm of the organization earlier this year, he stressed the need to confront America's corporate board rooms as well as its crime-ridden streets in the cause of civil rights.

The convention offered evidence that the group's membership is willing to support him on both fronts, but also that a new direction won't be accomplished without some growing pains.

For example, delegates warmly received a speech denouncing racism by Lani Guinier, whose nomination to head the Justice Department's civil rights division was withdrawn by President Clinton after she became the target of congressional conservatives. But NAACP officials had to move quickly to head off a protest by delegates critical of the group's support for gays in the military.

Similarly, South African leader Nelson Mandela won a standing ovation for his kickoff speech. But some delegates reportedly were resistant to Mr. Chavis' desire to broaden the group's mandate to include issues affecting Hispanics, American Indians and other minorities.

House Black Caucus chairman Kweisi Mfume, of Baltimore, won plaudits for promoting black economic empowerment as "a logical extension of the civil rights struggle." But when the NAACP actually tried to implement that strategy through its $1 billion "fair-share" agreement with Denny's restaurants, the attempt produced an uproar over what should have been an unrelated matter of black participation in NFL expansion teams.

Still, the most significant thing to come out of the convention may be the recognition that these are growing pains, that the NAACP remains vital and capable of change and that Mr. Chavis is ready to lead it into new, unexplored territory. That's a sign of health, not decline. What we are seeing is a new NAACP coming out in fighting trim.

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