The NAACP's national board is poised to select a new president and CEO. But a rift among members threatens to shake up the plans, as some complain they have been shut out of the process to choose a new leader for the Baltimore-based civil rights organization.
Calling itself the "Leadership of Conscience," a group of about a dozen NAACP board members expressed its objections at the board's annual meeting in New York last weekend. During board elections, the group waged an unsuccessful effort to unseat Chairman Julian Bond.
Dissident board members say the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is at a critical crossroads as it approaches its centennial next year. They say the matter is not a mere internal squabble and that the presidential selection process illustrates how the nation's oldest civil rights organization is ruled by an elite inner circle that is out of touch with its grass roots.
"There is a significant coalition of opposition formed to push the NAACP forward and to reject the status quo," said J. Whyatt Mondesire of Philadelphia, who was elected to the board last year. "People want to change the agenda and be in the forefront of the civil rights struggle."
Bond contends that board members approved the very selection process to which some now object.
"Of course it worries me if a single member of the board feels that way, but I don't think it is a common feeling," said Bond, 68, the veteran civil rights activist and former Georgia state senator who has been chairman since 1998.
The NAACP is still smarting from the abrupt resignation last March of President Bruce S. Gordon after 19 months at the helm. Board members selected the former Verizon executive with great fanfare, hoping for a fresh approach and that his corporate connections would boost fundraising. But Gordon and the 64-member board that hired him clashed over philosophy and civil rights strategy.
Last year, the NAACP recruited a 15-member search committee made up of activists, scholars and eight board members. The panel will forward the names of three finalists to the board's executive committee, which includes Bond and 16 other board members. In May, the executive committee is expected to recommend one finalist to the full board for its approval.
Some board members complain that the process relegates the full board to little more than a rubber stamp.
"We give more authority to outside people who really have no stake in the organization than we do the board of directors, many of whom have spent their entire life working for the association," said Alfred Rucks, a 12-year board member from Las Cruces, N.M. "It gives the impression that the board isn't of sufficient caliber to pick the CEO, and some of us are offended by that."
It is unclear whether the group has the numbers to block the executive committee's pick, but some hinted that they will try.
"We do not have to accept any recommendation," said Ernest Johnson, a board member from Baton Rouge, La. "No one can dictate to us what to do and how to vote."
Johnson said he's concerned that the search committee will pick someone like Gordon - a civil rights outsider with a long corporate resume.
"I'm a firm believer that someone who can raise money should not be the driving force," he said. "Are we supposed to be worried about raising money or about fighting for civil rights?"
Coalition members said the organization should be less concerned about finding someone with cachet and should look for someone inside NAACP ranks.
"We're an organization that has continually ignored the people whom we have trained and groomed," said Alice Huffman, a board member from Sacramento, Calif., who ran against Bond last weekend, losing 30-21. "But we need someone who understands our culture."
Huffman was a member of the search committee that chose Gordon. "Members are nervous about this," she said. "They don't want to be embarrassed again."
Bond said the search committee is dedicated to finding someone who embodies the organization's mission and legacy, but would offer no further details.
The coalition also has complained that NAACP leadership is out of step with the 2,000 branches it serves around the country.
Last weekend, some board members pushed to change a policy that requires local units to hand over 60 percent of their membership dues to the national office in Baltimore. Branches keep 40 percent for local operations. Representatives from the NAACP's local branches recently voted to swap percentages, keeping 60 percent for themselves.
But at last weekend's meeting, the board rejected the local units' action. Some board members said the rejection violated the NAACP's constitution.
Bond said only the board is permitted to make decisions about membership dues. He said a majority of the board disagreed with the local units' formula.
"I was astounded that anyone would propose taking a million and a half dollars away from the national treasury at a time when our units were asking for more services," he said.
Bond said a huge fundraising campaign recently shrunk last year's $3 million deficit to less than $300,000. He said he did not want to revisit the organization's former financial troubles.
But Huffman said that when the board rejected the local units' plea, it showed contempt for their hard work.
"We have a responsibility to keep our units strong," she said. "Every significant grass-roots activity of the last 10 years has come from the field."