WASHINGTON -- NAACP President Kweisi Mfume urged the organization's national board of directors yesterday to consider suing handgun makers for the devastation that gun violence has visited on African-Americans.
"We believe some of these gun manufacturers deliberately and negligently marketed weapons in communities knowing, in fact, that there would be related problems," Mfume said. "We represent significant constituents who by and large are disproportionately affected by gun murders."
The board decided to seek legal advice on how to proceed on the issue.
Mfume's remarks came at the organization's annual meeting, a celebratory gathering with birthday song and cake marking the 90th year of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group and another chapter in its return to stability and financial security after a period of turmoil.
The meeting considered a long list of issues the 500,000-member Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People plans to address.
The leaders pledged to help preserve affirmative action, ensure that minorities are adequately counted in the census next year, push for a federal study of racial profiling and strengthen the national hate crimes act.
"Our battle is just a few blocks from here, on Capitol Hill," Mfume said.
Mfume and Chairman Julian Bond, said, as they have in recent years, that the NAACP seeks to appeal to people of all colors. "Black bigots in our society," Mfume said, "are just as damaging as white bigots or brown bigots or yellow bigots."
Many of the hundreds in attendance -- board members, officials and observers -- agreed.
"Our leadership is on target," said Edward S. Lee, a member from Snow Hill on the Eastern Shore. "The role of the NAACP now is to bring race relations squarely to the table, and it has to be done by coalition."
To bolster the organization, officials vowed to increase membership, retaining longtime members while overseeing a substantial increase in membership fees.
The increase, from $10 to $30 a year for basic annual membership, was the first dues increase in 16 years and goes into effect March 1. "In terms of internal reform, [it was] one of the most important things we committed to do over the past year," Bond said.
Though Bond said most members supported the increase -- "Is our freedom worth $2.55 a month? Is it worth 8 1/2 cents a day?" -- some NAACP officials and members dread it, predicting that it will drive away many people.
"Our branch is very small," said Baba Whisler of the York, Pa., branch, which has 109 members. "It was hard on people to just pay that $10."
She predicted that York's membership would drop by half with the increase.
NAACP officials said the increase is necessary, in part, to bolster an improving financial picture: The organization has a cash surplus of more than $5.5 million and assets of $12 million -- 10 percent increases over the previous year, according to chief financial officer David R. Woodford.
For some, such prosperity answers a question that haunts the organization and came up again yesterday: Decades after legally sanctioned discrimination was outlawed, is the NAACP still relevant?
In tandem, Mfume and Bond stressed that the organization's work is not done. Over and over in his 20-minute speech, Bond, who was unanimously re-elected chairman, said, "We need the NAACP."
Mfume echoed him: "The NAACP does have a real role and purpose in this society."
Later, in an interview, Mfume said a key example of that role is addressing the issue of gun violence among African-Americans.
In recent months, cities such as New Orleans, Chicago and Miami have pursued legal redress for the health costs they must shoulder because of handgun violence. Earlier this month, in a ruling that many heralded as a precedent, a New York jury found firearms manufacturers liable for damages resulting from shooting crimes.
Yesterday, Mfume submitted to members of the national board background material and legal theories as he urged them to take action on the issue.
The NAACP could represent victims of handgun violence or their families already suing gun makers for "negligent marketing," he said. Or it could "pursue a product liability claim," he said.
"These are possibilities -- I don't want to suggest that any of these things will definitely take place," he said. "But, I think that the time has come for us to start looking proactively at other ways that we can deal with this proliferation of handguns aside from simply supporting laws in the Congress."
In other action, Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, was elected to the board.
Pub Date: 2/21/99