On Leading the New NAACP


The evening before the press conference at which NAACP Executive Director Ben Chavis issued his apology for having appeared to endorse Charlotte's bid for an NFL team, the presidents of the state's county branches gathered at the national NAACP offices to craft an acceptable statement.

When Baltimore City NAACP President Rodney Orange and I wearily left at the meeting's conclusion just before midnight, Rodney's face showed the signs of worry and stress. He wondered aloud whether the uproar caused by Mr. Chavis' misstatement would permanently damage the organization's reputation and fund raising activities. We both shrugged; there simply was no way to tell.

Rodney's eyes were red and his gait lacked its characteristic bounce. He still had one more appointment before he could end a day that had included an eight-hour shift at the steel mill and four hours haggling over wording with Mr. Chavis. Still, Rodney had reason to be pleased with the pivotal role he had played in the deliberations, and it appeared that he had gotten much of what he and the city branch had wanted.

Rodney turned to me and half jokingly asked if I wanted my old job back as branch president. His offer is now a routine for us. He seems to do this after every crisis, every piece of unwanted publicity, every internal disaster or piece of hate mail. It's not an easy job. Too much time is spent reacting and too little trying to build something lasting.

There is a new administration at the national office with new ideas, new programs and new initiatives. Yet they will find that without solid support and coordination with the local branches, their new projects will be impossible to implement.

The NAACP ironically is a victim of its own success in changing American laws and behavior. The group has won many victories whose impact has been felt by millions of people. As a result, however, in every crisis our members rely on us to state the principles, craft the answers and mobilize the masses. In times of confusion, our job is to bring clarity of thought to the fight.

Thus the jobs of the national executive director and branch presidents are now dominated by crisis management. The African-American community expects us to move quickly and forcefully to solve real and imagined race problems. We are supposed to be the community's insurance policy against bigotry. That's a tall order.

To me, it was also the most appealing part of the job. The issues were cast in black or white. The moral principles were self-evident. One had only to act forcefully, decisively and with courage. It was a job both Rodney and I had wanted. But we both found out there is a lot more to it than that.

At one time, there were fewer voices and the NAACP was the loudest and clearest. That is no longer true. Yet many of the issues affecting African-American advancement have not changed. There is still discrimination. We still earn less than our white counterparts. We are better educated but still lag behind white Americans.

Moreover, we face many issues that did not confront our predecessors. Some of them -- gay rights, drug decriminalization, school prayer -- have strong constituencies within and without the NAACP, and debate over them often paralyzes us.

The NAACP worked hard, for example, to get laws enacted that forced businesses to include minorities in their planning. Yet laws alone were not enough. So the Fair Share program was designed to give local branches a non-confrontational way to establish goals for opening up opportunities for black businesses and workers.

The Fair Share program has produced important gains for blacks in many areas. But it was never intended to be a means for businesses to try to co-opt the NAACP as an investment partner.

When the Charlotte affair broke, it took us far too long to decide that we had made a terrible mistake by giving the impression that the NAACP was for sale. Both Rodney and I are convinced the Charlotte gaffe was an unfortunate but innocent result of the enthusiasm of Mr. Chavis and NAACP National Board President William F. Gibson, who both hail from the Carolinas. Yet in order to maintain our credibility in an era in which black leaders are often mistrusted on the flimsiest of pretexts, it is imperative that when we make a mistake we admit it and take immediate steps to correct it.

Rodney called a meeting of officers of the Baltimore City branch to discuss the the matter. The city branch was outraged. If the national office had in fact endorsed the Charlotte NFL bid, it would have represented a major departure from NAACP policy.

The NAACP does not operate as a marketing arm for any profit-making corporation. Yet Mr. Chavis appeared to have commited the organization to promoting the Charlotte group over its rivals, including Baltimore. Moreover, our members who wanted football in Baltimore felt betrayed and angry. If they stayed that way, the branch risked losing both financial and volunteer support.

Rodney still has his exuberance and enthusiasm for his mission to reinvigorate the Baltimore City branch. He has replaced committee chairs, balanced the budget, repaired broken bridges with the religious community and strengthened our bond with minority businesses. Still, it seems that whenever he gains his stride something happens to pull him off it and threaten all the hard work he has put in over the last six months.

Perhaps the euphoria of the National NAACP convention just passed will help overcome the embarrassment of having to apologize for the gaffes of our national leaders. Perhaps the damage will be minimal and our members will forgive and forget. I certainly hope so. But whatever happens, the role of the NAACP will be the same -- to be a strong and effective insurance policy against bigotry and racism.

Arthur Murphy is former president of the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP.

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