Critics who say corporate allies and member attrition have softened the nation's oldest and most storied civil rights organization probably never uttered those views in the presence of Dennis C. Hayes.
The NAACP lawyer and interim president stiffens in his chair. The NAACP talks tough. The dog hasn't lost its bark.
"No one gives money to the NAACP expecting their contribution to buy them any quarter," Hayes said last week, referring to donations from such household names as Microsoft, Wyndham, Exxon, Wachovia, PepsiCo and Kodak.
"We will take your money today," he said forcefully, "and sue you tomorrow."
But critics worry that the group's heavy reliance on company donations has compromised its effectiveness. The nation's oldest civil rights watchdog might hesitate to bite the hand that feeds it, they reason.
Under the leadership of Kweisi Mfume, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization increasingly forged relations with Wall Street and solicited millions of dollars from corporations.
Meanwhile, the number of individual members the NAACP claims remains at 500,000, a figure unchanged since 1946. The total cannot be validated by the organization's national office in Baltimore, and it declines to provide a complete picture of corporate donations.
Asked to give examples of where the organization sued corporate benefactors, the tough-talking Hayes, the NAACP's chief legal officer since 1990, shut his eyes and searched his memory. He thought of one.
The Adam's Mark hotel chain was giving money to the organization in 1999 when the NAACP alleged that it had discriminated against black guests during a black college reunion in Daytona Beach, Fla. Two years later, the organization initiated a boycott of the hotel chain and Adam's Mark agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a federal discrimination lawsuit.
"They saw something that they thought needed to be addressed, and it is the organization's right to address it," said Adam's Mark spokesman Tommie Monroe, who has a plaque in his office from the NAACP's local St. Louis chapter. It is dated 1999 and commends the Adam's Mark for equality and fairness.
"We still give support to the NAACP today," Monroe added.
Lots of companies do. The NAACP's $27 million annual budget is marbled with contributions from the nation's leading corporations. But how much Wall Street gives is anybody's guess.
At a time when outspoken members such as black historian Denton L. Watson say that company loyalties compromise activism, the NAACP cannot or will not provide a full accounting.
Hayes said the organization's public tax records "should tell the story." But in them the NAACP does not distinguish between individual and corporate support. The information "is not available," spokesman John C. White said in an e-mail.
Watson, a former NAACP publicity director, called that explanation absurd: "They know. They just don't want you to know."
White changed his explanation after learning of Watson's assertion: "I should've said that we don't want that information disclosed."
When Watson worked at the national NAACP office from 1983 to 1985, about 80 percent of the operating budget came from members, individual donors and local branch fund-raisers, he said. It was proof of the group's strong membership and grass-roots muscle, he said.
Mfume, a former Maryland congressman hired as NAACP president in mid-1996 when the group was running about $3.2 million in the red and reeling from accusations of financial mismanagement, is credited - or faulted - with wooing corporate America.
In his resignation speech Nov. 30, Mfume spoke of budget surpluses, $15 million in cash reserves and "a flourishing endowment" of several million more.
"Nine years ago we were an organization waylaid by the paralysis of analysis," he said. "Some thought that we had lost our way, and in the process they thought we had lost our will."
NAACP supporter Earl G. Graves, the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, said that under Mfume's tenure the organization was successful at raising money and scrutinizing businesses' commitment to diversity.
"What's wrong with a nonprofit raising money from corporations?" Graves asked. "Kweisi did so with persuasion. But he never said, 'Well, I can't knock these people because they gave me money.'"
Corporations have responded to NAACP pressure by increasing their marketing to blacks and by hiring more minorities in management positions, Graves said.
"This idea of going to companies that you know are not doing the right thing and telling them, 'Well, if you don't shape up, we won't support you,' that's nothing new," Graves said. "Jewish organizations, church groups have done it for years."
The NAACP's Web site says its Annual Corporate Campaign generates significant funds to support national programs, but it does not list specific donors or amounts. Even in the 21st century, White said, some donors want to remain anonymous for fear of racist retribution.
But a search of recent NAACP press releases and corporate Web sites reveals several significant donations. Some of the largest contributors also scored high on NAACP industry report cards that grade companies in areas including employment diversity and charitable giving.
Among the donors to the NAACP or its Special Contributions Fund are Wachovia Corp., which gave $1 million last summer. Two days before the contribution was announced, Wachovia ranked first on the NAACP's Financial Services Industry 2003 Report Card.
White said Friday that any inference of favoritism is unfair, and that the 2003 report card is based on 2002 survey data.
"These things are not prepared overnight," he said.
Most of the Wachovia donation was earmarked for the NAACP's ambitious education programs.
"We are committed to working to eliminate educational inequity by supporting organizations like the NAACP that are leading the way in this important area," Wachovia Chairman Ken Thompson said at the time.
The NAACP began an initiative in 2001 to close the education gap between blacks and whites. To date, this Call for Action in Education has amounted to a letter-writing campaign urging state governors to address disparities.
Next year, the NAACP plans a Web site where school districts can go to chart their progress. If a 50 percent swing in a long list of education-related disparities isn't seen within five years, said NAACP education director John Jackson, the organization will target the offending states with legislation or agitation.
"The carrot of the people," he called it.
A big part of the NAACP mission today is to highlight racial injustices - "to simply tell the story," Hayes said - and empower its base to respond.
But if the gathering this summer at the annual convention in Philadelphia is any indication, the base could be shrinking, said Watson, a civil rights professor at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.
The membership roll
Watson, a former editorial writer for The Sun and biographer of former NAACP Washington lobbyist Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., said the rights group hides the truth about its declining membership rolls.
"The NAACP membership is old. Not aging, aged," said Watson, who will turn 70 next month. "In Philadelphia, I was struck by the gentrification of the membership."
White disagreed with Watson's characterization.
"Obviously, he wasn't there the day P. Diddy showed up to talk to the youth delegates," White said, referring to musician/actor/activist Sean Combs.
The NAACP says it has 105 college chapters, 250 youth councils and membership of half a million. But it can't or won't produce records to prove it, and White said the group has no demographic breakdown by age.
Watson said he promoted the same half-million membership figure when he was the organization's publicity director - and that he was lying.
"The membership totals given then were inflated," he said.
White declined to comment, saying he knew nothing about Watson's experiences in the national office.
Accurate figures in the 1980s were closer to 300,000, Watson estimated. And the membership has dropped since then, he said, either through deaths or disgruntled members leaving the organization.
Baltimore Republican Joseph Ward said that if he had not paid $500 for a lifetime membership, he would have dropped out of the NAACP 10 years ago during the sex scandal involving Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., then the group's executive director. Today, Ward, 66, is upset by the partisan speeches given by board Chairman Julian Bond at the convention.
"This is a great organization, but it should not be supporting Republicans or Democrats. It should be supporting colored people. That's what it was created for," Ward said. "We are headquartered in Baltimore, but what has the NAACP done for the city schools here? What have they done for all the cities - Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York City - that are in bad shape?"
Ward joined the NAACP in the 1960s, in its heyday, when it pushed successfully for passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, when there were no questions about corporate ties or membership vitality.
For his part, Hayes sounds cautious when it comes to forging commercial ties.
"I know that it will be important for the NAACP to in fact not receive more corporate support than [support] it receives from its members and individuals," the interim president said. "But I don't know if it does or not now. I have not seen the numbers."
Sun staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.