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New Day at NAACP, But Some of Same Old Questions

July 10, 1996

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ Kweisi Mfume and Myrlie Evers-Williams said again and again at this week’s NAACP convention that ``it’s a new day begun″ for the organization. In some respects, it is.

However, the NAACP still faces some of the same old questions, problems and criticisms as it continues to regroup following a turbulent, two-year period that threatened to wreck its credibility.

But perhaps the most basic thing that Mfume, the NAACP president, and Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams, chairman of the board, have been able to do during the organization’s 87th annual convention is give members reason to be hopeful.

The theme of the convention, ending Thursday, is ``A New Day Begun.″

``People feel very confident with the brand of leadership Mfume brings to the NAACP,″ said Roger Vann, president of the New Haven, Conn., NAACP chapter. ``It has to be a new day. We’ve righted the ship internally.″

``I do believe that there has been a lot of change,″ said Rev. Curtis Gatewood, president of the chapter in Durham, N.C.

In his first convention speech as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Mfume promised harmony and a swift end to the days when the NAACP was handicapped by internal strife and disunity.

``This is a new day begun and I will fight until hell freezes over not to let anything divide us,″ he told cheering delegates Monday. ``We are going to fight discrimination and not each other.

``Jim Crow Senior is dead but Jim Crow Junior is alive and well,″ he said. ``But unlike his father, he gets his joy watching us lynch ourselves.″

But despite Mfume’s call for unity, infighting and turmoil continue.

Members from a dozen Midwestern states protested Sunday against Mfume’s decision to move their regional office to Baltimore from Detroit. The move was part of Mfume’s plan to streamline operations.

Some members of the 64-member national board also are upset that Mfume reports only to a 17-person executive committee, instead of the full body.

The NAACP recently lost Wade Henderson, the longtime director of its Washington bureau, and is about to lose Ed Hailes Jr., the bureau’s counsel. The departures will leave the organization without a major lobbying presence in the nation’s capital in the months leading up to November’s elections.

``The NAACP now is a house divided,″ said John Harvey, former president of the Flint, Mich., chapter. ``It’s going to be hard for them to do something until there’s a shakeout.″

Its previous executive director, Benjamin Chavis, was fired in 1994 following the disclosure that he used NAACP funds to quiet sexual harassment allegations against him. Mrs. Evers-Williams was elected in early 1995 to set the organization on a new course, and she helped bring Mfume along.

Mfume and Mrs. Evers-Williams speak passionately about fighting efforts to undo affirmative action programs and countering Supreme Court decisions that are eroding the hard-won gains of the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

They talk about improving public education for blacks, securing jobs, housing and entrepreneurial opportunities and working to improve the plight of black men and boys. They haven’t followed up with specific proposals.

But both say the NAACP is still needed because the country continues to face many of the problems civil rights leaders fought decades ago.

In her address to delegates, Mrs. Evers-Williams said America ``does not know which direction it is headed in.″

``We as firefighters must guide it in the right direction,″ she said.

On the positive side, however:

_The NAACP’s debt, which nearly topped $5 million two years ago, has been reduced to less than $1.5 million, Mfume said.

_The organization also is taking advantage of technology. It switched this month to its first computer system for processing memberships. On Tuesday, it opened a site on the Internet worldwide computer network.

_The NAACP is in the midst of what it says is its most extensive voter registration and empowerment program ever. The goal of the yearlong effort is to sign up 1 million new voters, Mrs. Evers-Williams said.

_In keeping with the commitment to attract young people, Mfume has hired the Rev. Jamal Bryant to be the new national youth director. He also brought in a new chief financial officer to monitor finances. The NAACP’s long-term financial also plans include creating an endowment.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Darlene Superville covers urban affairs for The Associated Press.

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