Originally created 07/11/98

NAACP to refocus at annual convention in Atlanta



There are no scandals -- and no reverberations of scandal. Only issues.

For the first time in years, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People heads into its 89th annual convention, which starts Saturday in Atlanta, with an almost clean slate: Its finances are in order, and its new leadership team is highly visible and well-respected.

Now the United States' oldest and largest civil rights organization has free rein to reinvigorate its activist agenda -- and counter perceptions that it is not relevant -- in an era when issues such as racism and discrimination are no longer at the center of national debate.

Some say President Kweisi Mfume and Chairman Julian Bond are the ideal duo to tackle the challenges. The convention is their first large-scale opportunity to begin the process.

"I think this is the watershed," said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who keeps close tabs on the NAACP. "They arrive at this convention with a new leadership team intact, with no scandal, with money," he said. "I think this is a very important convention in that sense."

The new stability, said Mr. Bond, who was elected in February, "will allow us to be more pro-active than reactive. ... We no longer have to fight brush fires."

The question before officers and members at the six-day convention: What now?

Members of the NAACP's 63-member national board will debate a slew of topics -- from the disproportionate effect of tobacco and environmental hazards on blacks to increased violence in post offices -- that have surfaced via local chapters.

A chapter in Oklahoma -- where more than 150 people were killed in the April 1995 bombing of a federal building -- is pushing for laws to better document terrorism.

On a national scale, Mr. Mfume will ask NAACP members to help gather census data to ensure adequate counting in communities of color.

In other events, such public figures as Vice President Al Gore, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Gen. Colin L. Powell are among scheduled speakers. Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard and media mogul Ted Turner will hold a forum on telecommunications in the black community.

Dan Glickman, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will address the concerns of black farmers, many of whom have sued the federal government for racial discrimination. Hundreds of farmers are expected to attend the convention.

And in the wake of recent reports that AIDS particularly afflicts blacks, a midweek march on AIDS in the black community recently was added to the agenda.

For many members, perhaps more important than the tangible convention results will be a crucial intangible: feeling the NAACP's new leadership team's impact. Many are eager to see firsthand how well Mr. Bond and Mr. Mfume click and what tone they set for the Baltimore-based organization.

"I think this convention and the board meeting is really going to define how the board is relating to the Bond-Mfume leadership dynamic," said Ben Andrews, a board member from Connecticut. "Delegates are going to be looking to see how this convention is responding to their needs."

Soon after Mr. Bond was elected chairman in a close vote at the board of director's annual meeting in New York in February, rumors circulated of tensions between the veteran civil rights leader and history professor and Mr. Mfume, a former congressman who had headed the organization for more than two years.

But, echoing the sentiments of other members and observers, Montgomery County radio host and national board member Joe Madison said, "I hear they're working together great. There are rumors of a rift, of jealousy and competition. I don't know where they are coming from. I think they are overblown."

The current stability comes barely three years after scandals began rocking the NAACP. The group battled negative publicity about financial impropriety and a multimillion dollar debt under then-Executive Director Benjamin F. Muhammad, formerly Benjamin F. Chavis. Last year, several members of the national board, including former New York chapter president Hazel Dukes, were removed for ethics violations.

Some critics say the problems have left many of the organization's members more focused on damage control than looking critically at one another.

"They're putting on a good face for the convention," said Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. "The airing of dirty laundry is tantamount to treason in the black community."

Regardless, many talk of optimism and hope in a way few have in recent years. "I get the feel that there is liftoff," said Herbert Lindsay, president of the Maryland chapter of the NAACP. "There is a new feeling of newness to the organization, you feel the surge of energy."