Civil rights shake-ups open door to new leaders


WASHINGTON -- Kweisi Mfume's sudden departure after nine years as president and chief executive officer of the NAACP signals a seismic quake that rattles far beyond the doors of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.

Reports have been leaking out for months that Mr. Mfume and Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board, have not been getting along, although both men displayed nothing but unity after Mr. Mfume's announcement Tuesday.

Some board members have complained to me privately that Mr. Bond's speech criticizing President Bush at the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia this summer unnecessarily provoked the Internal Revenue Service to review the group's tax-exempt status as a nonpartisan organization. Other board members say Mr. Bond's support of gay marriage alienated many black ministers.

By remarkable coincidence, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth stepped down recently after less than a year in office as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led to the mountaintop.

Both shake-ups come at a time when support for Mr. Bush grew to 11 percent of the total black vote from 8 percent four years earlier, despite attacks against the president from black civil rights leaders such as Mr. Bond.

Racism still is a problem, of course, but it's not as much of a complex issue for black Americans as it used to be. For example, we still have episodes such as Alabama's referendum in which voters of that state narrowly failed to remove segregation-era language from the state's constitution.

Nevertheless, opportunities abound for those who are willing to take advantage of them. The struggle for equality involves more than civil rights. It also involves preparing our young people to take advantage of opportunities the civil rights movement opened up for them.

America's leading civil rights groups have been searching for new agendas since the 1960s. Meanwhile, the gap has grown between formerly poor blacks such as myself, who have benefited from civil rights advances, and those who have been left behind in poverty and despair.

It is this gaping contradiction that inflamed Bill Cosby this year in Washington at a 50th anniversary observance of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision. Infuriated by continuing black-on-black violence related to poverty, he unfurled a litany of self-reliance, personal responsibility and other values regarding reality that need to be pounded into the heads of black youths and families.

Although the media had a field day with a few black leaders who thought Mr. Cosby was harshly blaming the victim, Mr. Mfume, who was on the same stage, told me later that he agreed completely with what Mr. Cosby said, although he would not have used the same blunt language.

So have most other black folks whom I have heard in discussions, formal and informal, since Mr. Cosby's comments, which he would later re-emphasize in other speeches.

By comparison, hardly anyone but the president seemed to notice when Mr. Bond unleashed a thoroughly predictable anti-Bush attack at the NAACP's July convention.

Although Mr. Bush addressed the NAACP as a candidate in 2000, he is the first president since Herbert Hoover to skip the group's annual gathering. The president has described his relationship with the NAACP leadership as "basically nonexistent."

Mr. Bush, however, has spoken to the National Urban League and continues his outreach to black churches through his faith-based initiatives.

After the election, Mr. Mfume sent a congratulatory letter to Mr. Bush and asked for a bridge-building meeting between the administration and the NAACP.

Since Mr. Bush has not shown much interest in talking even to Republicans who are not 100 percent on board with his programs, I'm not holding my breath for him to meet with the NAACP. Apparently Mr. Mfume isn't either.

That leaves the NAACP to launch a search for a new leader. I suggest Mr. Cosby. He might not jump at the opportunity, but he seems to have his priorities straight.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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