An Open Letter to Those Who Still Believe in the NAACP

Your Take: While shopping for a new CEO, how about considering some new board leadership?

Members of the NAACP in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2013
Members of the NAACP in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2013 NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

On Aug. 3, 1994, syndicated columnist Carl Rowan (pdf) published the first of four blistering columns on the NAACP. It began: “It is sickening to watch the death of the NAACP, a once-proud organization now being strangled by two incredibly arrogant leaders.” The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at that time was dealing with the fallout from the questionable actions of the Rev. Ben Chavis, then executive director, and Chairman of the Board William F. Gibson. The result was the firing of Chavis and a downward spiral that lasted for several years and changed forever how the organization empowered and managed its national staff.

Nearly 20 years later, the NAACP, currently engaged in a search for its next president and CEO, is in a place that is (in the opinion of this writer) sickening to watch. This grand organization (celebrating 105 years of existence next month) is getting ready to replay the same tragic story we saw during the transition of the last four national leaders of the organization, dating back to 1994. But now the question is not just who will be the next CEO, but who should be the next chair of the board and members of the executive committee?

While the departure of Chavis was marred in legal issues that the shift from Ben Jealous avoided (so far), it signaled the beginning of two decades of challenges, both public and private, between the executive committee (27 members elected from the 64-member board of directors) and the president and CEO of the oldest civil rights organization in the United States.

From Kweisi Mfume to Bruce Gordon, and now during the transition of the recently departed Jealous, those who have cared enough to watch have seen a recurring storyline. The CEO resigns, things seem in great shape, the world realizes they are in poor shape, the NAACP board blames the outgoing CEO, the board then crowns the next messianic figure on whom to pin the hopes of the civil rights community.

Don’t believe me? Steven A. Holmes wrote an article on Dec. 11, 1995, titled “NAACP’s New Hope: Kweisi Mfume.” The article touted Mfume’s skill set, addressed the organization’s $3 million debt and highlighted the previous challenges with the board. Holmes wrote:

As a five-term Representative from Baltimore, where the NAACP is based, Mr. Mfume brings political acumen to the civil rights group, the country’s oldest but one whose political relevance has been questioned in recent years. He has shown an ability to raise money, a skill badly needed by a group saddled with a $3.2 million debt.

As a condition of taking the job, Mr. Mfume wrested concessions from the NAACP board, which since the mid-1980s has taken much power and control from the organization’s chief executive but has fallen short in raising money and in debating and formulating policy.

As a staff person at the NAACP during the Mfume years, I personally experienced an excessive, and often encouraged, culture of board micromanagement that stifled staff innovation and productivity. This was not the practice of every board member, and many frowned upon it, instead following proper institutional protocol by addressing the staff with challenging and relevant concerns during board committee meetings.

One staff member who worked at the National Office in 2000 (commenting under the condition of anonymity) stated, A week didn’t go by when I didn’t get a call from a board member acting as if they were my direct supervisor.” As the NAACP national youth director, I cannot say I got a call every week, but it was difficult to do my job without certain members of the board barking operating directives far more productively than they set policy.