The recent and publicly unexpected resignation of Kweisi Mfume as president of the organization leaves the NAACP with real decisions to make regarding their future direction.
Almost since its inception, in the waning days of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Machine, the post of NAACP president has arguably been the most visible civil rights position in the country. With the noted asterisk of Martin Luther King’s SCLC, the lineage of NAACP heads have wielded more institutional authority and political weight than their peers in the trenches of the civil rights struggle. That said, the recent and publicly unexpected resignation of Kweisi Mfume as president of the organization leaves the NAACP with real decisions to make regarding their future direction.
In the scandal-soaked days we live in, resignations generally come attached to charges of misappropriation, incompetence or absence of lust-control. Mfume’s exit — without any bold-printed tabloid-size accusations and citing the ubiquitous desire to “spend more time with family” — is a welcome change. He leaves the organization in vastly better shape than it was when he arrived in 1995. Still, times have been challenging for the NAACP of late: George W. Bush gave them the bureaucratic stiff-arm last summer, becoming the first president since Herbert Hoover to refuse their invitation to meet. And in September, the IRS announced it was launching an investigation into whether or not the NAACP violated its tax-exempt status when board chair Julian Bond made a speech critical of the Bush Administration at a convention last summer.
It’s interesting to note that the NAACP faced this dilemma once before — during the McCarthy era. In that climate of political repression and persecution, then-President Walter White was hesitant to criticize McCarthy’s demagogic ways believing that the inevitable backlash would result in the loss of their tax-exempt status. (White did eventually give a scathing speech about McCarthy in 1953 but the Association did not lose its exemption status.) Whether this makes the Bush era worse than the McCarthy era is yours to figure out, but it does bring additional weight to the search for a successor. Add to the equation the fact that there are those who question the NAACP’s relevance and direction and this becomes easily the most important decision the organization has made in a decade.
Among the neglected footnotes of civil rights history is the fact that the first two presidents of the NAACP were white — an outgrowth of the organization’s roots as a biracial coalition of “neo-abolitionists” founded by the white socialist William English Walling. His initial call brought together both black activist intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett and white progressives like Oswald Garrison Villard (grandson of William Lloyd Garrison), Mary White Ovington and Joel E. Spingarn with the goal of establishing an organization that would defend black rights in the wake of the murderous Springfield, Illinois Riot of 1909. Moorefield Storey, a lawyer who had previously been president of the American Bar Association served as the first president of the organization. Storey was succeeded by John Shillady, a white branch organizer who had been beaten nearly to death by a mob in Austin, Texas for attempting to establish a branch there.
It was not until 1920 that the NAACP appointed its first black president, James Weldon Johnson (who had served briefly as interim president between Storey and Shillady.) Johnson — who had already written a classic novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and the poem that was later to become the “Negro National Anthem” Lift Ev’ry Voice, and served as ambassador to Venezuela and Nicaragua — had also been indispensable in building a network of NAACP branches throughout the country. It fell to Johnson to lead the organization in the bleak days after the summer of 1919, when the country indulged its bloody festivals, targeting blacks in literally hundreds of race riots across the country. Fittingly, the major focus of the Johnson years was the Association’s anti-lynching work. (Amazingly, the NAACP’s effective lobbying succeeded in the House of Representatives passing the Dyer Antilynching Bill in 1923. Though it later stalled in the Senate, it marked the growing political sophistication of the young organization.)
Johnson had also hired Walter White, the young branch organizer who was to succeed him as president of the organization in 1930. White famously used his light skin as racial camouflage, walking into towns and “passing” in order to investigate lynchings. White guided the organization for 24 years, during which the Association launched the “Double V” campaigns of WWII, factored in Truman’s 1948 desegregation of the military, created a separate Legal Defense Fund (which would win the Brown decision) and saw its membership quintuple to nearly 500,000. And to be accurate, White’s tenure also saw its share of branch dissension, particularly during the early Cold War and W.E.B. Du Bois, the organization’s most distinguished founder, twice pushed out of its leadership.
Roy Wilkins — a protégé of White — became president in 1955 and his tenure witnessed the ascension of Martin Luther King and the later radical elements of the Black Power Movement created a crowded, competitive field of black leadership. Still, Wilkins was the president most closely associated with the modern civil rights struggles — despite the persistent criticism that his low-key style was too moderate for the turbulent era (in 1964, younger members unsuccessfully sought to replace Wilkins for a more aggressive leadership.)
Mfume is only the third NAACP leader since Martin Luther King’s assassination, following Benjamin Hooks and the short, failed term of Ben Chavis who, in addition to being mired in scandals and accusations of womanizing, also left the association with a $3 million debt. For his part, Mfume brought a higher degree of name-recognition to the post than any of his predecessors with the exception of James Weldon Johnson, having served as a city councilman in his native Baltimore, MD, as a congressional representative and twice as president of the Congressional Black Caucus. He reduced the organization’s debt, operated with a budget surplus for eight consecutive years and leaves the organization with a reported $15 million in cash reserves. Under Mfume, the NAACP also initiated anti-discrimination lawsuits against the Adams Mark Hotels, reinvigorated the group’s youth membership and vigorously fought against the use of the felon disfranchisement “lists” that were responsible for thousands of black voters being illegally removed from the rolls during the 2000 election.
But the question marks remain.