ATLANTA - Saying a dedication to civil rights activism is in his blood, former Verizon executive Bruce S. Gordon was elected as the NAACP's next president and chief executive officer yesterday.
The board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People unanimously selected Gordon in a four-hour closed meeting at the Atlanta Airport Marriott, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said. The 59-year-old retired president of Verizon's Retail Markets Group was the sole finalist for the job.
"To people who ask: Why did they chose this corporate guy, what does he have, what will he do? I say, it's in my DNA," Gordon said to the applause of board members in a news conference after the vote. "I couldn't be more excited, more committed or more blessed."
When he was growing up in Camden, N.J., Gordon said, his parents raised him to be socially conscious. He said he attended NAACP meetings with his father, who founded their hometown chapter.
His selection marks a departure from recent leaders with backgrounds in social activism, politics and the ministry. Gordon said that while he was a leader in corporate America for more than three decades, he has always been passionate about civil rights. He suggested that he and Bond, with his front-lines civil-rights-era experience, would complement each other.
"Understand, I do have a civil rights history - it's just a bit different," he said. "It takes all kinds of people to make a movement work."
Gordon did not unveil a specific platform but stressed that the NAACP must strengthen its membership and improve its finances. He also said a message of financial empowerment for people of color would be a cornerstone of his presidency.
"I do believe economic empowerment is literally that," he said. "It gives people and groups and communities the social leverage to succeed."
Gordon is expected to formally take over day-to-day leadership of the NAACP's Baltimore headquarters after his selection is confirmed at the group's national convention July 9-14 in Milwaukee.
He succeeds Kweisi Mfume, who resigned in November. Mfume, who led the NAACP for nearly nine years, is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
Although the national search for a new NAACP president attracted many applicants, Gordon said the search firm contacted him. Gordon, who left Verizon in December 2003, said he was enjoying retirement while serving on several corporate boards.
"They called and asked if I was interested in considering the job," he said in an interview after the news conference. "I was not looking for a job, but when it came to me, my sense was, in a nutshell, [that] my skills and my background matched where the organization is and where it needs to go."
Former Verizon colleagues credit Gordon with pushing diversity issues and helping to build the ranks of minorities in top positions at the company.
Some observers have suggested that Gordon has arrived at the NAACP during a time of upheaval and questions about its relevancy.
Mfume left the NAACP amid allegations of sexual favoritism at the national office, which resulted in the organization paying a former female employee a reported $100,000 settlement. Mfume, who says he left the organization voluntarily, denies the allegations and the existence of a settlement.
NAACP leaders have complained of being rebuffed by the Bush administration, and the group is fighting an IRS audit following allegations that Bond made remarks about President Bush that stepped into political partisanship.
"I don't expect the two parties to come together on everything," Gordon said yesterday of a relationship with the Bush administration. "But we should find some common issues to work together on."
Meanwhile, critics within and outside of the organization have questioned Gordon's civil rights background. Ron Walters, a political science professor and director of the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Institute, said he was surprised that the NAACP would chose Gordon, whose background appears to contradict the NAACP's long-standing strength of grass-roots activism.
"I think now is a time when the NAACP should be fighting," he said.
But NAACP board members said that Gordon will invigorate the organization and that his management skills are precisely what the group needs.
"The NAACP is a historic organization, and it's easy to fall into the trap of doing things the same way," said board member Myisha Patterson. "Sometimes you need someone to step in with a new perspective and break the mold."
Gordon said in an interview yesterday that young people are important to energizing the organization and that its senior members are essential.
"I'm not satisfied, at first pass, that the 20- and 30-somethings have as much influence as they could have and should have as to how the organization operates," he said. "The senior members are invaluable. They have experience and institutional memory that you don't want to lose. I want to work on coupling that with a more inclusion of new perspectives."
Roslyn Brock, the NAACP vice chairwoman, said Gordon possesses the right balance of attributes. "He can speak to the corporate CEO and the brother on the corner," she said. "The vitality, you can hear it in his voice. He is young enough to connect to young people, but is old enough to understand the generation who marched in the movement."
Bruce S. Gordon
Born: Feb. 15, 1946, in Camden, N.J.
Education: Bachelor's degree in sociology and liberal arts (Gettysburg College); master's degree in management (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
Career: Spent 35 years at Verizon Communications Inc. Started in 1968 at what was then Bell of Pennsylvania and worked his way up to president of Verizon's Retail Markets Group, the position he held upon his retirement in December 2003.
Serves on several corporate boards, including Tyco International Ltd. and Southern Co.
Named in 2002 to Fortune magazines list of the 50 Most Powerful Black Executives.