Will The NAACP Revamp?

Published December 6, 2004

Kweisi Mfume, the president of the NAACP for nearly nine years, unexpectedly announced that he is leaving the organization on January 1, 2005. In some sense, his departure represents the last of the old-guard civil rights leadership fading away. It is also interesting this announcement comes on the heals of his request to meet with President Bush for a face-to-face meeting.

Many of us hope that now is the time to clean house at the upper-level of leadership of the NAACP. But if the executive board wants to be accountable during a time of desperate need for true leadership, the NAACP should also relieve Julian Bond as chairman of the board of directors. This would give the organization a real opportunity to take a look at issues and determine what is likely to benefit blacks the most – regardless of which political party supports the policy.

Regardless of your opinion of Mfume, at least recognize that he was just a jockey riding a horse that wasn’t winning any races. In some sense, his own arms were tied by an organization with little focus on the priorities that gained the organization so much respect throughout almost the past hundred years. He almost certainly was thinking, “Enough is enough.”

The NAACP has been given the opportunity to once again become the relevant organization it was formed to be in 1909 and gain the respect of a bi-partisan audience. It can return to its roots of looking out for the best interests of blacks – not just the liberal perspectives that Democrats have to offer us.

Personally, the NAACP has always meant a lot to me. When the Governor of my home state, Alabama, attempted to ban the organization from operating, it went underground during the 1950s.

As a high school student, I vowed to work as a volunteer for the organization when I went to college in the north. After a 40-hour week of work, I volunteered 25 hours a week for the Brooklyn, NY, chapter of the NAACP – eventually becoming vice president and chairman of the housing committee.

It was during that time that I became a friend of Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP [today, the “executive secretary” is referred to as the “president”]. To this day, a photo of Mr. Wilkins and I hangs on the wall just to the right of my desk. He always wore a three-piece suit with cap-toe shoes. Because of him, I always did the same.

I don’t think too many folks ever knew whether Mr. Wilkins was a Democrat or a Republican. What we did know is that whoever was president of the United States, Mr. Wilkins was invited to meet with him. Not too long after his death in 1981, the organization became almost an extended-arm of the Democratic Party – abandoning black folks as a priority and instead adopting whatever the Democratic party is supporting.

One of my most difficult moments came as a columnist for Crain’s Chicago Business. I wrote a column saying the NAACP leadership was out-of-touch with the priorities of the black community. Yet according to Professor Christopher Reed’s book, “The Chicago NAACP and the Rise of Black Professional Leadership, 1910-1966,” the Chicago chapter of the NAACP was one of strongest in the country, almost as powerful as the national organization. What happened to the NAACP here in Chicago?

My sincere hope is that the NAACP both nationally and locally will return to its original mission of serving the black community with results-oriented leadership, regardless of political affiliation or gender.

Lee Walker ([email protected]) is president of the New Coalition for Economic and Social Change. He is also a columnist and member of the editorial board for the Chicago Defender.