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 NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The transition from Mfume to Verizon executive Bruce Gordon involved much less public scandal but followed the same pattern. There were several national articles that touted a $15 million surplus created by the former congressman’s tenure. However, by the time Gordon was named CEO, the organization was crying broke, had closed all but one of its seven regional offices and was going through a series of massive layoffs.

It was evident very early in Gordon’s administration that many members of the executive committee were not happy with his corporate leadership style. After less than two years, Gordon, who was a phenomenal example of corporate-meets-service, having led Verizon to previously unparalleled levels of community engagement, was gone. There was a very public division of the board and its leadership between those who wanted to see Gordon go and those who were in favor of him staying.

But in the end, the organization went through a similar budget shortfall and hiring freeze between the departure of Gordon and the hiring of Jealous, the association’s youngest national CEO. Jealous was praised for his fundraising ability, which ensured that the organization remained in the black for the five years he was in charge. And while Jealous’ tenure was not as volatile or publicly rocky as those of Mfume or Gordon, the civil rights community was surprised when the young Jealous announced his departure this past fall.

He cited family reasons, and nothing has come to light to imply it was anything else. In fact, Roslyn Brock, the chair of the board, thanked Jealous for his service, stating, “Under his leadership, the NAACP has built a highly competent staff that will carry our mission forward and meet the civil rights challenges of the 21st century. Our board, staff and volunteer leaders throughout the country deeply appreciate his sacrifice and will continue to implement our game-changing goals for the next half century.”

And despite this glowing show of support and the fact that the NAACP under Jealous addressed and mobilized thousands around Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, marriage equality, civic engagement and the school-to-prison pipeline, we are seeing history repeat itself. Much remains the same. Despite the great work of the development department that was the real power behind Jealous’ fundraising, the organization will soon be going through its traditional transition layoffs. The chief operating officer and chief financial officer have already put in letters of resignation, and the proverbial shortfall in finances is rearing its ugly head.

At some point those who love the NAACP have to start asking the fundamental question: Is the organization really being led, not by the right CEO, but by the right executive committee? When the shortfalls, staff layoffs and lack of movement consistently happen between CEOs, is it all on the staff, or should some of that responsibility rest on the shoulders of the board leadership, who historically micromanage everything?

Many of you are already saying, who cares about the NAACP? It’s an organization that has passed its time. Why not let it go out to pasture with its outdated name and philosophy? But I, like many others in this country, still believe in the NAACP. I don’t think it is for everyone, but I believe that it has the potential to be part of the fight for social justice like no other organization we have. Why? Three reasons:

1. There is an army of volunteers who make the NAACP unlike the many organizations that work with a foundation of paid staff. And those volunteers are ready at a moment’s notice to push when no one is watching and no funding shows up. Those volunteers are regular members. They are state, branch, college-chapter and youth-council officers who still believe that fighting for civil rights and social justice is an imperative. Some are more effective than others, but most believe that their NAACP membership card affords benefits only after sacrifice.

2. The Youth and College Division is still one of the largest gatherings of young people committed to continuing the work of social justice by being what their very constitution asks them to be: intelligent and militant youth leaders. The local advisers (some of the most consistent members of the NAACP) give their time and personal resources to make sure there is a next generation. And the young people and students who make up the ranks of the division are crying out to be trained and empowered to make a real difference where they live.

3. The staff and board of the organization are, by and large, committed people, giving all they can to make the association work. It is those professionals and loyal board members who work daily, not just to push personal power agendas, but to walk in the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Roy Wilkins, Daisy Bates and Medgar Evers—men and women of varying races and ages who have used the organization to improve the quality of life for so many marginalized people. They may not always agree on ideology or tactics, but their reason for being there is bigger than themselves.