MINNEAPOLIS -- Chairwoman Myrlie B. Evers-Williams, seeking a fresh start for the NAACP after nearly a year of scandal and debt, pledged yesterday that the group would get back to the basics of civil rights work.
"Beginning tonight . . . we have to make a commitment to end all of the backbiting, all of the infighting that for a brief moment has caused us to lose sight of our goal," Mrs. Evers-Williams told an enthusiastic crowd at the group's 86th annual convention last night. "For a brief moment we took our eyes off the prize, and the vultures began to circle."
The gathering is the retired business executive's first chance to put her stamp on the nation's largest civil rights group. She was elected by a one-vote margin in February after Chairman William F. Gibson was accused of financial improprieties.
"We are anxious to get all the things we might consider negatives behind us," Mrs. Evers-Williams told a news conference earlier yesterday. "And we will put it to rest in a unified manner."
The 62-year-old widow of slain NAACP activist Medgar Evers has inherited an organization that is $3.8 million in debt, lacks an executive director, has suffered deep staff cuts and bears the scars of months of infighting.
"The ship may have been slightly damaged, may have taken on a little water, but there are enough of us bailing that this ship shall not sink," Mrs. Evers-Williams said last night.
What strength the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has now lies largely in its grass-roots network of 2,200 branches, college chapters and youth councils -- and in the legacy of its past victories for blacks in Congress and the courts.
With a Republican-led Congress and a conservative Supreme Court that are trying to roll back some of those gains, the NAACP will revert to a chief tactic of old -- getting out the black vote, Mrs. Evers-Williams told reporters.
"The power is in the vote, and we do have that power," Mrs. Evers-Williams said.
"If we had voted as we should have, we perhaps would not be facing the same problems we're facing now with the U.S. Supreme Court. We would not have Justice [Clarence] Thomas there, for one."
Justice Thomas, the only black on the court, sided with the majority in recent rulings limiting affirmative action, court-ordered school desegregation and creation of majority-black congressional districts. He was appointed to the court by Republican President George Bush.
Wade Henderson, director of the NAACP's three-person Washington bureau, has been named to lead a "voter empowerment" program. He said he would rely on local NAACP activists to enlist some of the 7 million unregistered black voters to take part in the 1996 elections.
He said only 37 percent of voting-age blacks cast ballots in November.
"The vote is certainly one of the most effective weapons against racism in America," Mr. Henderson said. "The NAACP is uniquely well-suited to implement a national voter empowerment program."
Lenny Springs, chairman of the NAACP Special Contribution Fund, welcomed the opportunity to "get back to plain old basic civil rights."
"With this country moving to the right and the decisions coming out of Congress and the Supreme Court, if that doesn't motivate us to get our act together, I don't know what will," Mr. Springs said. "It's time for us to close ranks."
The NAACP will attempt to do that at the convention, which runs through Thursday and is to feature speeches by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore and others.
The 64-member board is to receive Wednesday an audit of the spending of fired Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., Dr. Gibson and other officers.
Mrs. Evers-Williams said the audit results would be made public.
She said the board expects to consider candidates for executive director at its next meeting in October. The post has been vacant since Dr. Chavis was fired in August.
"The board has had differences in the past, but we are about unity," Mrs. Evers-Williams said. "That will be a strong emphasis throughout this convention."