Till Earth and Heaven Ring | The Nation


Till Earth and Heaven Ring

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Just a half-decade ago, controversy of another sort plagued the organization. Its executive director, Ben Chavis, and its chairman, William Gibson, were accused of catastrophic mismanagement and lavish spending, compounded by Chavis's payment of about $300,000 in NAACP funds in an out-of-court settlement of a sexual harassment case. Running up a debt of close to $5 million, the organization went into a tailspin, cutting its staff from 250 in 1992 to just fifty three years later. First foundations, then corporate backers, pulled out, and membership collapsed. The Atlanta Constitution, in a commentary that typified coverage of the NAACP at the time, wrote that it was "frail and listless...like a tottering old geezer about to turn a corner in a bad neighborhood. Does it get bopped in the head and snuffed out of its misery?"

Research support provided by the Elections 2000 Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Robert Dreyfuss
Bob Dreyfuss
Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist specializing in politics and national...

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"I was disgusted by the leadership," says Roger Wilkins, a longtime activist (and nephew of former executive director Roy Wilkins) who was named in 1998 to rebuild The Crisis, the NAACP magazine founded by W.E.B. Du Bois. "I turned away in horror."

The road back started in late 1994 with the firing of the discredited Chavis. Gibson came under attack by the sixty-four-member board, which began to divide into pro- and anti-Gibson factions, the latter of which received a big boost when Bond was elected to the board. Early the following year, Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of Medgar Evers, the NAACP's representative in Mississippi who was murdered in 1963 by a white segregationist, won a bitter and contentious fight to oust Gibson as chairman by one vote, 30-29. Trading on the prestige of her name, and using management skills she had honed in the business world as an Arco executive, Evers-Williams began the rebuilding process, meanwhile calling on foundation leaders and corporate backers to pay off the NAACP's crushing debt. At her inaugural event, African-American columnist Carl Rowan helped raise more than $1.5 million.

Later in 1995, the NAACP hired Mfume as its president and CEO. First elected to Congress in 1986, Mfume, a onetime school dropout from West Baltimore, proved a deft politician, rising to become chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. As president, Mfume brought enormous prestige to the NAACP, along with political savvy and fundraising acumen. Partnering with corporate allies and wealthy black businessmen like Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Earl Graves Sr. of Black Enterprise magazine, Mfume managed within one year to erase the NAACP's debt. By October 1996, the organization was in the black, and it has been thriving financially ever since.

Bond, too, played a key role in the NAACP's post-1994 renaissance. A founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized protests across the Jim Crow South in the 1960s, Bond was elected to the all-white Georgia state legislature--which twice refused to seat him--and led a state counterdelegation to the 1968 Democratic National Convention that successfully challenged the credentials of the all-white official group. Outside observers of the NAACP say that Bond, in particular, is responsible for steering the organization toward a more activist and confrontational politics.

"During the Clinton years, because his enemies were our enemies, we too easily fell into an embrace and a defense of him," says Bond. That's a charge echoed by some of the NAACP's critics on the left, who accuse it of refusing to challenge the conservative drift of the Democratic Party on issues like crime, welfare and social spending. But Bond now seems to be taking the gloves off. In New Orleans he laced into Bush for selecting Cabinet officials "from the Taliban wing of American politics," whose "devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection." But Bond added dollops of skepticism about Democrats as well, noting that it "remains to be seen...whether they put the people's priorities ahead of corporate concerns."

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