CHICAGO -- Angered by criticism of their performance, NAACP leaders and their defenders have circled the wagons at the group's 85th annual convention, bashed the media and sniped at detractors.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, yesterday blamed reporters, "mostly of the white press," for controversy about the civil rights group. She told 3,000 NAACP delegates: "Don't let anybody pull you apart. Don't let anybody divide you."
Ms. Waters picked up on the tone set by the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. in his keynote address Sunday night -- a speech in which he departed from his text to deride media critics and to offer "public forgiveness to all of those [NAACP members] who have smiled in my face" before back-stabbing him.
When sign-waving NAACP youth put on a show of support for Dr. Chavis before his speech, he told the convention: "The media reported there was going to be a demonstration, but they didn't plan on this demonstration. . . . Put this picture on the front of Time and Newsweek."
And Ms. Waters won a standing ovation yesterday for suggesting that only bad news about blacks interests the media, not the good works of the NAACP.
"Give us as much attention as you've given O. J. [Simpson]. Run behind us with your cameras the way you do when [Louis] Farrakhan shows up," she said.
The leaders of the Baltimore-based NAACP have faced criticism mainly from outside the group for courting Minister Farrakhan, the black separatist leader of the Nation of Islam, and from national board members for rolling up a $2.7 million deficit in Dr. Chavis' first year on the job.
The finances appear to be a far more sensitive issue at the convention than Minister Farrakhan, but the leaders have so far BTC treated any public criticism of their stewardship as verging on betrayal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Stand behind the NAACP leadership, the argument goes, and you promote black unity and make the civil rights group stronger. It is a pitch that seems to appeal particularly to young members for whom Dr. Chavis, 46, represents a new generation of leadership.
Michelle Madison, 34, a Baltimore delegate to the convention, said personality clashes and differences of opinion in the NAACP "should be worked out behind closed doors."
Dr. Chavis "has been dealt a bad deal by some internal forces. If you have a problem, go to him; don't go to the media first," she said.
Delbert Sanders, 26, a Detroit candidate for a seat on the NAACP's national board, said it was "irresponsible for the national board to attempt -- they can't do it -- to cast a negative light on the inner workings of the association. The media is not the place to work out these problems."
But C. DeLores Tucker, a veteran of more than three decades in the NAACP, founder of the National Political Congress of Black Women and a surprise candidate for the board, urged delegates at a mid-Atlantic region meeting yesterday to "question everything."
"We need visible leaders on the board -- those not afraid to speak up and speak out when something is wrong," she said. "I'll support [the leadership] when they're right, but I'll talk about them and fight them when they're wrong."
Leroy Warren, a national board member from Silver Spring, told the group in endorsing Dr. Tucker: "We will not have the NAACP two years from now at the rate we are going. . . . We're in very serious financial trouble."
The board election, which will give the membership a chance to comment indirectly on Dr. Chavis' performance, is set for today with a runoff between the top two of five candidates tomorrow, if necessary.
Last night the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson brought the delegates to their feet in a surprise appearance before the convention. He complained that white media hold "appraisal power" to "validate or invalidate" black leaders' relations with one another.
Only 15 months ago, Mr. Jackson, leader of the National Rainbow Coalition, dropped out of the running for the NAACP job that Dr. Chavis later won. NAACP board members had feared that Mr. Jackson would not be a key player or respect the board's power.
Mr. Jackson told the convention last night: "NAACP, never stop dreaming."
Three students with the Baltimore NAACP won medals yesterday in the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO).
The winners were:
* Carl Fennel, 17, Baltimore School for the Arts, first place for his sculpture "The Struggle."
* Robert Pointer, 15, Dupont Park SDA, Fort Washington, first place for his biology project on rat liver mitochondria.
* Terrahn L. Brewer, 17, Lake Clifton/Eastern High School, for his piano performance of "I'll Remember April."
A total of 72 medals were awarded. Nearly 2,000 teen-agers, winners of local contests across the nation, competed at the NAACP convention. ACT-SO is the NAACP's "Olympics of the Mind" for high school students.