As always Bruce Gordon was tactful and circumspect in explaining why he was leaving as NAACP president after only 19 months. He would only say that there were differences between himself and others in the NAACP, presumably meaning his differences were with some on the organization's 64 member national board. His low-key pronouncement was in keeping with the no-nonsense corporate approach to civil rights advocacy that he brought to the organization. That was, and is, the problem.
The standard knock against the nation's oldest civil rights organization is that it's too staid, and tradition bound. But that's not the real problem, and Gordon's departure underscores this. The NAACP's embrace of showy, symbolic fights, and despite its momentary détente with President Bush last summer at its convention, its blatant push of any and all Democrats, does little to solve the mountainous problems of drugs, crime, and gangs, soaring joblessness among young blacks, and the astronomical rate of prison incarceration of blacks. Nor do the annual reports cards from Gordon and other NAACP officials issue on racial progress in; financial services, auto retail, telecommunications, the advertising and marketing industries, foundation and corporate giving.
The NAACP's retreat from visible activism on thorny racial and economic problems can be directly traced to the fight against legal segregation in the 1960s, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the class divisions within black America, and the greening of the black middle-class. By the close of the 1960s the civil rights movement had spent itself. The torrent of demonstrations, sit-ins, marches and civil rights legislation annihilated the legal wall of segregation. With the barriers erased, the black middle-class grew by leaps and bounds.
Many packed up their bags and started their headlong flight from inner cities to greener suburban pastures. They owned more and better businesses, marched into more corporations, and universities, spread out into more of the professions, won more political offices, bought bigger and more expensive homes, cars, clothes, and jewelry, took more luxury vacations, and joined more country clubs than ever before. The NAACP became the political springboard for this fast emergent black middle-class. It fought hard to get more blacks in corporate management, in elite universities, in front of and behind TV cameras, elect more black Democrats, and secure more business loans.
But these battles do not have the remotest bearing on the lives of the black poor. They have grown more numerous, more desperate, trapped in segregated or re-segregated neighborhoods plagued by crime, drugs, and gangs. They shuttle their children off to abominably failing public schools, or are stuffed into bulging jail cells.
NAACP leaders are sandwiched between the shifting upward fortunes of the black middle-class, and downward of the black poor. A tilt by them toward a hard-edged activist agenda runs the risk of alienating the corporate donors and the Democratic politicians that the NAACP leaders carefully cultivate. They depend on them to gain even more jobs, promotions, and contracts for black professionals and businesspeople, to bag contributions for their fundraising campaigns, dinners, banquets, scholarship funds and programs and increased political patronage.
Even the NAACP's proposed move of its national office from Baltimore to an economically distressed area of Washington D.C. has had controversy. Some of the controversy has to do with locating the national office in a poorer section of the city and concerns about what that would do for the organization's image and national stature.
Gordon is only the latest self-inflicted casualty of the NAACP's ongoing internal battle for its leadership to regain legs as the voice of black America. His predecessor, former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, had similar problems with the organization and resigned under less than amicable circumstances. Gordon's corporate management style and philosophy was apparently resented by many of the NAACP's board members, it was also ill suited to tackle the chronic problems of urban poverty and discrimination.
The NAACP can reclaim its cutting edge leadership and activism by mounting a no-holds barred assault on such problems as the glaring iniquities in the imposition of the death penalty, the racially skewed mandatory drug sentencing laws, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the lack of comprehensive health care for the poor, and grossly underserved, under-performing inner city schools, and chronic double digit black joblessness. Finding a new leader that can bridge the gulf between the two black Americas, one poor, frustrated, and alienated and the other prosperous, and upwardly achieving is a daunting challenge for the NAACP.