NAACP hopes court rulings will put troubled group back on familiar turf


The debt-ridden NAACP may have found an unwitting fund-raiser: Clarence Thomas.

Members of the troubled civil rights group, which holds its 86th annual convention this week in Minneapolis, are hoping that recent Supreme Court rulings curbing race-based programs -- and in particular, the opinions of Justice Thomas, the court's only African-American -- will make blacks rally round the NAACP.

"Clarence Thomas did us in. We need to fight him and the Supreme Court," said W. Gregory Wims, president of the Maryland State NAACP, which has raised $10,000 to give to the NAACP in Minneapolis and will challenge other state conferences to do the same.

In recent years, as black Americans lamented problems such as violent crime, drug addiction and teen pregnancy, the National Associationfor the Advancement of Colored People's traditional approaches of legislation and litigation were viewed as ineffectual.

But with a Republican majority in Congress and a conservative Supreme Court focusing the public debate on affirmative action, congressional redistricting, court-ordered school desegregation and race-based scholarships, the NAACP is back on familiar turf.

"Because the whole issue of civil rights is up for grabs again and the issue of race is in wide-open debate again, an organization like the NAACP is needed more than it has been certainly in the last 20 years," said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

But Mr. Meyers doubts that the NAACP is up to the task of defending the civil rights movement's victories.

The Baltimore-based organization owes creditors $3.8 million, has limped along without an executive director for nearly a year and, after deep staff cuts, has a board of directors (64 members) that is bigger than its national staff (about 50).

"I think the NAACP is on a fast track into nowhere's land," said Mr. Meyers, a former aide to Roy Wilkins, who as executive director presided over the group's heyday a generation ago.

But Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a scheduled convention speaker, said: "I think it can get back in fighting shape."

In the scandal-filled year since the NAACP's last convention, Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. was fired, Chairman William F. Gibson was defeated, and dozens of employees were laid off when the group couldn't make its payroll.

The group fired its longtime fund-raiser, Gilbert Jonas, who has sued, saying he is owed more than $394,000. A group of female former employees has sued, saying the NAACP paid them much less than men in comparable jobs. Fund raising from outside sources dropped by almost $500,000 through May. Three of seven regional offices, including one at the Baltimore headquarters, have been closed.

Almost nothing at the NAACP remains the same -- except the debt.

Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams, elected in February by one vote over Dr. Gibson, says that the top priority of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group is to restore its financial health.

She has pledged that a long-awaited audit of NAACP spending, ordered by the board in October, will be made public at the convention.

Ms. Berry said the audit is "very important in terms of people having confidence that resources are being wisely used."

"People don't like to throw good money after bad," she said.

Rodney A. Orange, president of the Baltimore NAACP, said he would be disappointed if the organization did not make the audit public. "We need to bring some closure to this and at least inform the membership what went wrong, where we are and what is the strategy of the national."

But NAACP board member Anthony Fugett, a Baltimore businessman, said he was concerned that if the audit is perceived as an attack on Dr. Gibson, it could spur a new round of infighting that would damage the NAACP.

"There's a sense that if there's a hiccup along the way, the supporters of Gibson will rise again," he said.

If the NAACP is to regain its vitality, Ms. Berry said, the board must hire a new executive director "who knows how to manage and raise money." Despite the group's financial situation, she was confident that excellent candidates could be found.

"The NAACP is a historic institution which has a major role to play. It's a playing field where anyone could get tested to their limits. I think it's a plum," she said of the executive director's job.

While Mrs. Evers-Williams, the widow of NAACP martyr Medgar Evers, apparently has widespread rank-and-file support, members say the group needs someone of national stature to represent the NAACP day in and day out.

The NAACP board has appointed a search committee, but the top job isn't expected to be filled before this fall at the earliest. Earl T. Shinhoster, the acting executive director and a finalist for the post when Dr. Chavis was selected in 1993, wants the job, but board members say they are likely to pick someone from outside the organization.

Dr. Chavis, who tried to attract young members and form alliances with black nationalist leaders during his 17 months heading the NAACP, was fired in August after secretly committing $332,400 in NAACP funds to settle a threatened sexual-harassment suit.

Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, an NAACP life member, said the group could help restore its more than 400,000 members' faith in the organization by allowing them to vote for executive director. But the board isn't likely to relinquish control over the process.

Mr. Snowden said the NAACP's deficit is less a money problem than a crisis of confidence.

"It's a disgrace," he said. "Given the wealth that exists in the African-American community alone, it should not be taking as long as it has to retire this debt."

This convention, which is expected to draw about 16,000 people, will be Mrs. Evers-Williams' first as chairwoman. She addresses the convention tonight.

One test of her strength as chairwoman may come as the convention elects an at-large member of the board. Joseph E. Madison, a close Evers-Williams ally and vocal critic of the Chavis-Gibson leadership, is up for re-election. The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP and a Chavis-Gibson supporter, is expected to challenge him.

Mr. Madison, a Washington radio personality, drew some criticism for washing the NAACP's dirty laundry in public, but he said he expected the convention to support his outspokenness.

"Too many people were not willing to speak up publicly about what was going on, therefore creating a veil of secrecy around our problems," he said.

Mr. Madison said he hoped the veil would be lifted completely at the convention, which runs through Thursday.

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