THE CIVIL RIGHTS organization that Kweisi Mfume took over Tuesday is going to change considerably under his direction. That was clear in remarks he made during swearing-in ceremonies attended by both the president and vice president of the United States. Not only did the new NAACP president criticize far-right policies that "punish the elderly, restrict the poor and deny opportunity to our children," he acknowledged the damage done by liberal policies whose sole objective has been maintenance of the poor. "The poor must not be maintained; they must be transformed," said Mr. Mfume.
The speed with which Mr. Mfume and new NAACP Board Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams are seeking to transform that organization was reflected in their rapid seating of new board members at last week's meeting. Former Chairman William F. Gibson angrily declared, "It's never been done that way in the history of the association." He might as well get used to it. Mr. Mfume and Mrs. Evers-Williams don't plan to do things the old-fashioned way. Lack of innovation is one reason the relevancy of the NAACP in the 1990s has been questioned.
Mr. Mfume noted correctly that the focus for rebuilding the organization must be on developing new and effective ways to involve young people. "Failing to develop roles and responsibilities for our young people will certainly ensure our failure later on," said Mr. Mfume. He said one of the NAACP's highest priorities will be to reinvigorate its 2,200 branches with young people and create new college chapters.
The immediate task, of course, is to make the organization fiscally viable again. It has debts exceeding $3 million. But although Mr. Mfume included a financial appeal in his speech, he also made it understood that he didn't take on this job just to be a fund-raiser. Mr. Mfume decribed an NAACP that will fight discrimination against all people of color while continuing to emphasize the lack of opportunity that still too often impedes the progress of African Americans. Other evils hurting minorities -- child abuse, drug abuse, lack of access to capital and credit -- will also be addressed by this new NAACP. The expected metamorphosis during Mr. Mfume's tenure should restore the vitality that sustained the NAACP when civil rights for many Americans was only a dream.