Agenda Shock


Washington. -- Two cheers for the reform-minded victors at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I'll deliver the third cheer when they show me why I should care.

The NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil-rights organization, has narrowly avoided death. But, as Michael Meyers, a dismayed former NAACP staffer who now heads the New York Civil Rights Coalition, observed, "It's still on life support."

So it is. When I was a kid growing up in a southern Ohio factory town in the 1950s, the "N-Double-A" was unquestionably the premier black organization for "colored people." This was the organization that had fought since 1909 to end lynching, Jim Crow, poll taxes and other indignities heaped on us by white racists.

But since the 1960s, it has become more difficult to care about the grand old organization. Its 2,200 local chapters carry on mightily, making headlines, often without much leadership from the national chapter. Today's NAACP is like an octopus that is all tentacles and no brain.

The organization is a victim of its own successes. Once its original goals were largely won, it fell along with the rest of the civil-rights movement into a morbidly ambivalent state of agenda shock. That malady underlies the string of embarrassments that have flowed out of the organization in recent months, putting its very survival into doubt.

First came the financial woes. Under the autocratic chairmanship of William F. Gibson, the NAACP fell a breathtaking $4.5 million in debt. Among other astonishments, auditors are looking into $1 million Dr. Gibson reportedly charged on the credit card the organization gave him.

The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, its latest ex-executive director, was fired last year after agreeing, without approval from the organization's fractious and bloated 64-member board, to pay more than $300,000 in NAACP funds to a female former staffer who had accused Chavis of sexual harassment. Days before the big vote for NAACP leadership, Stephanie Rones, a former deputy legal counsel, filed an $800,000 suit that accused Dr. Gibson, Dr. Chavis and four other NAACP officials of knowingly tolerating discrimination against women employees.

It helps some that the new head of the organization is female, and Myrlie Evers-Williams' prominence as the widow of the slain Jackson, Miss., NAACP field director Medgar Evers lends a bracing dose of inspirational symbolism. Her professional resume as a former Atlantic Richfield executive and public-works commissioner in Los Angeles should be encouraging to future donors.

What next? Civil-rights veteran Julian Bond, who was elected on a reform ticket to the board, agrees that the election resuscitates the body, "which was in desperate straits, financially and morally."

Still, Mrs. Evers-Williams must deal with the 29 board members who did not vote for her (30 did) and answer the larger question of where the organization goes from here. Polls show the biggest concerns of black Americans these days tend to be jobs, schools, crime, housing and a deterioration of moral, family and community values among black youths.

For all his flaws as a leader, Dr. Chavis understood how much the organization needed to reach beyond its traditional working-class constituency to help the poorest of the black poor rescue themselves. Unfortunately, his efforts to forge an alliance with the controversial Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan caused more problems than it solved. The big challenge for the NAACP is to reach the young and disenchanted without going through as unpredictable and risky a channel as Mr. Farrakhan.

The divide between blacks and whites has plagued America since its early colonial days, but the emerging plague is the growing divide between rich and poor in an age of industrial restructuring and downsizing. These changes are felt by all races, but most painfully by poor blacks. It is not enough for the NAACP to picket or boycott for jobs and opportunities as if America still had a bounty of low-skill, high-wage jobs.

It is not enough to "stop the clock from being rolled back" on civil rights, as Mrs. Evers-Williams promises. Somebody needs to roll the clock ahead into a new century of black economic pro- gress. Until then, the action at the NAACP will continue to be with grass-roots leaders and volunteers, which appropriately is where the civil-rights movement began. The national chapter will just lumber along, a quaint relic of a grand and noble past.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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