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Archive for Tuesday, January 18, 2005

NAACP divided over future direction

January 18, 2005

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— During his speeches to Philadelphia children, J. Whyatt Mondesire, the head of that city's NAACP branch, likes to offer $20 to the student who can decode his group's acronym.

Many think he is on a recruiting junket for the NCAA. "I've only had to give away my money twice in seven years," Mondesire says. "That's my challenge."

As the Baltimore-based NAACP searches for a leader to replace outgoing president Kweisi Mfume, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization is at a crossroads, some say. They believe that the changing of the guard represents a chance for the NAACP to redefine its identity with younger black Americans who, unlike their parents, do not immediately think of the group when they think of civil rights.

Some members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, such as Mondesire, think a big-name replacement to Mfume is the answer. A nationally recognized figure, such as hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, would appeal to the next generation. But some members of the old guard are pushing for an insider, a veteran from the ranks of the NAACP's members who could navigate the treacherous waters of an unwieldy body with disparate agendas.

"We are basically 2,200 local organizations with a national title," Mondesire, 56, says of the factions. "The organization needs a heavyweight with a national reputation who can raise money, who has a vision and who has the connections to push us forward with a modern civil rights agenda."

Mfume, who is credited with bringing financial stability and credibility to an organization reeling from scandal and mismanagement when he took over nine nears ago, announced his resignation Nov. 30, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Mfume has dismissed persistent rumors among the organization's membership that he was forced out because of a rift between himself and Chairman Julian Bond. But Mfume has no role in a nine-member committee that Bond has assembled to find his successor.

Many of the members say they are thrilled with the job Mfume did. He erased a $3.2 million deficit and burnished an image sullied by the revelation that his predecessor, Benjamin Chavis, used NAACP funds to settle a sexual harassment suit.

But some accuse Mfume of losing sight of the issues that made the NAACP the leading voice for civil rights for much of the last century.

Gilbert Jonas, who directed the NAACP's national fund-raising and public relations operation for 30 years until 1995 and has written a book on the group's early history, says there was "a growing disenchantment (among board members) that they had virtually no new program initiatives" during Mfume's tenure.

Sonya Johnson, president of the Lawrence, Kan., NAACP chapter, said she thought Mfume did a good job during his years as president. Her organization saw a rebirth of its own during 2004, with the local chapter becoming more involved in community activities. She said reaching out to new, younger members by the national level was important.

"The national chapter has made it a priority to commit to reach out to the youth branches, so we're doing everything we can to pull in youth and get new members at both levels," Johnson said. "Membership is something we will continue to work on at both levels."

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