The announcement that Bruce S. Gordon, who has headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the past 19 months, will soon step down again raises questions about the role of a civil rights organization in the 21st century. Is it still relevant and can it find a strong leader? The answers should be yes.
The NAACP, which will celebrate its centennial in 2009, prides itself on being the nation's oldest civil rights organization. But many question whether it has changed sufficiently with the times. The group that helped break down legal, social and other barriers to jobs, housing and voting for African-Americans has struggled to keep the spotlight on continuing discrimination while also broadening its membership appeal among those, especially the black middle class, who have benefited from many of the opportunities it helped create.
Mr. Gordon, a former corporate executive, has said that the organization needs to be more focused on social service, such as health care and helping families accumulate wealth. Julian Bond, a longtime civil rights activist and chairman of the NAACP's 64-member board, has emphasized the group's mission to actively confront racial discrimination and provide social justice. Last year, the different approaches were underscored at the NAACP's annual meeting in Washington, where the group is looking to move its headquarters after a 20-year stay in Baltimore. Mr. Bond chastised the Bush administration on voting rights, the Iraq war and continuing high rates of poverty among African-Americans, while Mr. Gordon urged members to look within themselves and their communities for answers to questions such as how to reduce rates of HIV/AIDS and how to keep young people in school and away from the lure of the streets.
In reality, the two visions are not mutually exclusive. But Mr. Gordon's departure may have also hinged on other issues regarding fundraising, outsourcing programs, personality styles and whether or not the NAACP's board tried to interfere too much and undermine his authority.
The weekend's commemoration of the march in Selma, Ala. - a signature event in the civil rights movement of the 1960s - with Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, an African-American and a female presidential hopeful, vying for the black vote, points to how far the movement has come. But the march for justice is hardly over. A venerable organization that combats discrimination while helping people help themselves, and whose president and board can strike the right policy balance, should still have a role to play.