Which bell should the NAACP answer?
ATLANTA — Bruce Gordon was never able to fit in.
The ultimate outsider, Mr. Gordon, who this week resigned as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) after only 19 months, had never toted a placard or positioned a picket.
But there was a deeper reason why the retired Verizon executive couldn't find his place at the apex of the civil rights group: He was too newschool.
In fact, Gordon's sudden departure reveals a generational struggle within black America over the direction of a movement still facing national civil rights issues, but also pressing needs within the black community.
"As a vanguard group, you are expected to articulate new strategies and ideas and initiatives, and you're expected to be on top of issues that are facing your constituent populations," says Charles Christian, a social geographer at Coppin State University in Baltimore. "I'm not sure that's the nature of the NAACP today."
Insiders say Gordon, a self-described change agent, had a brash CEO style that rubbed the NAACP's 64-member board the wrong way. For one, he wanted to push the NAACP to accept a new mind-set in which its traditional advocacy agenda in Congress and the courts would be supplanted by a larger service role – helping African-Americans in their communities, especially young people struggling to advance.
In that vein, Gordon established a housing partnership with the National Association of Homebuilders to help blacks find affordable housing. He introduced a Web-based enrollment campaign, in which he reportedly helped increase membership from about 300,000 to 400,000, but below the goal of 1 million.
"We are going to be very outcome-oriented, very results-oriented as opposed to activity and effort-oriented," Gordon said in an interview with the Associated Press last summer.
For their part, board members criticized their top executive for what they saw as a premature move by Gordon to take the NAACP into a post-civil rights era."Bruce really had no understanding [of the NAACP]," says Rupert Richardson, an NAACP board member in Baton Rouge, La. "He thought it was his job to reshape us and bring us up to date, and we kind of think we already are."
Lately, the NAACP's board has recommitted itself to a role of cultural needler, evidenced by its opposition to the Iraq war and its personal attacks on President Bush. The work of the national office based in Baltimore is often seen as symbolic, while its 2,200 branches around the country do the heavy lifting on local issues such as investigating reports of discrimination.
"If racism was not still here, if people were not being disadvantaged and discriminated against, the NAACP would be out of business," says Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute in Baltimore.
Still, some say that a movement founded by young people – Martin Luther King Jr. was in his mid-20s when he led the March to Montgomery – needs to do more to break through the apathy of today's would-be marchers. "We spend countless hours with industries, city councils, and forums with experts and never really have anybody show up," Jeremy Ponds, a 21-year-old civil rights worker for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.
This lack of enthusiasm has also been seen in the NAACP's coffers. Fewer dues-paying members precipitated a cash crunch in the 1990s. In 1996, the organization was nearly $14 million in debt. In the 1990s, the NAACP began courting corporate donors, and by 2005 it had about $15 million in cash reserves. Nonetheless, the practice of corporate fundraising raised questions about the NAACP's ability to confront corporate America over discriminatory hiring practices.
"There's a feeling by many that the approach to civil rights has to change, because the issues have changed in the black community," says Ozell Sutton, an NAACP board member in Atlanta.
Ironically, much of that change can be traced back to the success of the civil rights movement. That more blacks are in the middle class is a result of opportunities afforded by 40 years of marches, sit-ins, and lawsuits by groups such as the NAACP, its leaders say.
Census figures show that the percentage of blacks below the poverty line has dropped from 60 percent in the 1960s to 24 percent in 2003. Despite the upward economic mobility, half of America's black population lives either below or just above the poverty line. An apathy among middle-class blacks about the plight of those left behind is a signal to some of an African-American community that's evolving into the haves and the have-nots, according to Dr. Christian.
"The fact is, the next generation is concerned more about green than black and white," says Bob Holmes, former director of the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy at Clark-Atlanta University.
Meanwhile, the NAACP's national office is shoring up a search committee to replace Gordon. Some experts say the organization may break new ground with this appointment by electing its first woman president. Back-of-the-envelope possibilities include former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D) of Illinois, ex-NAACP Legal Defense Fund head Elaine Jones, and former cabinet secretary Alexis Herman.
Men being considered include Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C., and Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.