For years, Bruce Gordon, a former senior executive at Verizon, has been credited with quietly helping to turn the telecommunications giant into a leader on diversity issues. Internally he's known for his business savvy and for mentoring a new generation of African-American corporate leaders, as well as being down to earth, "just a regular brother," according to people who've worked closely with him.
Now he's about to test his skills as an agent of cultural change on a far larger stage. As the man expected to be chosen to take over the troubled NAACP this weekend, Mr. Gordon will be steering an organization that has historically shied away from corporate types, opting for charismatic preachers, politicians, and well-known social activists at its helm.
The NAACP board is expected to formalize its decision on Saturday. Gordon's selection represents a departure for the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. And it also may represent a new direction at a difficult time: The NAACP is dealing with the fallout of favoritism allegations against former president Kweisi Mfume; it's also fighting an IRS audit questioning its nonprofit status after board chairman Julian Bond criticized President Bush leading up to the November 2004 elections.
Gordon's expected appointment has been greeted as both "a breath of fresh air" and a signal "for serious concern."
Some analysts believe Mr. Gordon's corporate résumé could help give the organization a more effective political voice during a conservative era in Washington. Others worry his appointment signals a political shift to the right in the NAACP, at a time when civil rights are under threat.
A third school of thought is that appointment of the little-known Gordon will allow Mr. Bond to take an even more high-profile public role. He already contends that the Bush administration is hostile to African-Americans, and argues that the NAACP has to become a more effective "counterweight" to its policies.
Individuals who have worked with Gordon contend he will be an extremely effective civil rights leader. They praise his professional courage in championing diversity in the corporate ranks from early on - at risk to his own career. Even among some prominent African-Americans who don't know Gordon, that's bred optimism.
"That speaks well of him," says Roger Wilkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose uncle led the NAACP from 1955 to 1977. "Back in the '60s or '70s I was one of the first blacks through the door, and the measure of your commitment was tested by how much change you were able to force or cajole out of the organization around you. And often that made you not very popular."
Gordon's approach to diversity - arguing it's not just good social policy, but also good business sense - helped him rise through the ranks to head the largest revenue-producing division of Verizon, the one responsible for consumers' home telephones and those in small to mid-sized businesses. He's credited with helping Verizon create various groups in which minorities can share their concerns, network, and raise awareness. He's also known as a strong mentor.
Eric Cevis started at Verizon 19 years ago when the company was still Bell Atlantic. At the time, Gordon was the only African-American in a senior corporate position there, Mr. Cevis says, and Gordon used that status to nurture diversity throughout the organization and mentor many young African-Americans.
"I see this move as a twofer," says Cevis, "Not only do they get a strong, sound, business-savvy individual, but they're also getting someone with a strong social conscience and a network from the White House on through Jesse Jackson."
But some people within the modern civil rights movement are skeptical of Gordon's appointment. Ron Daniels, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, believes the new NAACP leader should be well-known outside the organization and have a strong civil rights background. He's also concerned about what Gordon's appointment signals about the group's political direction.
"I worry that the attack on the NAACP coming from the Bush administration may have caused them to have pause about their outspokenness, and thus, [Gordon's appointment] could be an effort to appear more evenhanded and bipartisan," says Mr. Daniels. "This is one of the most dangerous moments in American history for civil rights, and what they need is an NAACP ... that will speak clearly to the hypocrisy of both the US's foreign and domestic policy."
Other African-American leaders are more optimistic. Kurt Schmoke, dean of the Howard University Law School, says Gordon's appointment indicates the NAACP recognizes that civil-rights movements have "many changing faces and that economic rights are clearly just as important as rights in the courts."
In a recent survey of African-American professionals done by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 75 percent indicated they'd like to start their own businesses.
"I know from my polling that younger African-Americans are more pro-business and looking for more entrepreneurial opportunities than older African-Americans," says David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center. "If the NAACP puts a new emphasis on bringing capital into the African-American community and encouraging new businesses, that's something that would potentially appeal to young people."
Gordon, who was raised by two teachers in Camden, N.J., and educated at Gettysburg College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is noted for his ability to navigate the telecommunications industry. Executives who have worked with him say his greatest gift lies in tapping people's strengths and bringing them together for the greater good of the organization.
"What made Bruce so effective was his ability to unite the people of Verizon, he had almost a kind of a rock-star status within the company. He was mobbed when he traveled," says Tony Lewis, president of Verizon DC.
"What you're seeing is the conveyance of that to the national stage. He's a natural for the NAACP. It's a stellar choice."