Fourteen months after the abrupt resignation of its national president and CEO, the NAACP is expected to select a new leader during board meetings at its Baltimore headquarters today and tomorrow.
But the selection process has been a source of internal strife at the nation's oldest civil rights organization. Some of the board's 64 members say they feel shut out of the process, complaining that the NAACP's inner circle has narrowed down the list of finalists without their consent.
In February, this group of a dozen dissenters, calling itself "Leadership of Conscience," waged an unsuccessful bid to unseat board Chairman Julian Bond, and it's unclear whether they will accept Bond's recommendation when the board is expected to vote tomorrow.
The board is expected to convene in a series of closed-door meetings without a clear consensus on the candidate. The climate will be vastly different from the board's unanimous approval of former President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon in the summer of 2005. The former Verizon executive came to the organization amid fanfare and a hope that he could help boost its lagging fundraising. But Gordon clashed with board members over the group's vision and civil rights tactics, leaving suddenly in March 2007, after less than two years at the helm.
Gordon's sudden departure frustrated many board members, coming at a time when the organization - two years from its centennial celebration - was struggling to increase membership, raise money and cement a vision of how to fight discrimination in the post-civil rights era.
Many in the NAACP say they are eager to fill the void in leadership, but some board members voiced skepticism about this weekend's decision.
"The process in my view has not involved the full board, and that is something that concerns me very much," said Alfred Rucks, a 12-year board member from Las Cruces, N.M., who has said in the past that the selection process gives too much power to NAACP outsiders. "Others also have doubted the process, raising concerns about who has been selected. But I want to have an open mind and let the process unfold. The selection of a president and CEO is one of the most important decisions the board can make."
But board member Adora Obi Nweze contends that the process under debate was voted upon by the full board months ago.
"You can't be upset about something you voted for," said Nweze, president of the Florida conference of the NAACP. "We are in America, and people are entitled to their difference of opinion. But the most important thing is we will come out of this meeting this weekend with a new president and CEO."
Last year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recruited a 15-member search committee comprising educators, activists and eight board members. The group has forwarded three finalists to the board's 17-member executive committee, led by Bond. The committee is expected to vet the finalists today and recommend one name to the full board for a vote tomorrow.
According to syndicated columnist George E. Curry, the finalists include Benjamin Todd Jealous, 35, president of the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, which supports social justice advocacy; Alvin Brown, 37, a senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton; and the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.
Neither the possible finalists nor Bond returned phone calls for comment. Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the NAACP, said, "I can not confirm or deny the validity of the names as finalists. But it is highly anticipated that the national board will act based on the recommendations they will receive."
Ernest Johnson, a new board member from Baton Rouge, La., said that most board members don't know what to expect of this weekend's meeting.
"As a board member, I have not ceded my right to vote for whoever I want to vote for," he said.
Rucks said he hopes the NAACP chooses a president who has a civil rights track record and can provide greater visibility for the organization.
"Sometimes I feel our advocacy efforts are not quickly translated into something people on the ground can see as beneficial to them," he said. "The NAACP has been a part of major racial issues lately, but how many people understand the NAACP is a prime mover in all this?"
During a time when civil rights issues have been in the news lately - from Hurricane Katrina, to the Jena 6 case and a nationwide rise in noose incidents - the NAACP needs more than ever to stick to its civil rights mission, said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and director of its Center for African-American Leadership.
But in choosing someone from outside the civil rights community, the NAACP made a mistake with Gordon, he said. "He was a corporate leader and wanted to lead with a corporate style. But these board members represent the rank and file, the grass roots," he said. "I hope it doesn't make that mistake again."
The NAACP should also try to attract a young leader and work on beefing up its policy advocacy on Capitol Hill. And rather than expecting a president to be chief fundraiser, the organization should bolster its development office, he said.
"The NAACP ought to signal that the organization is going into the 21st century and is going to be around for a while," Walters said.