The oldest and largest civil rights group in the United States has a new leader. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, known by its acronym the NAACP, made a choice that took many Americans by surprise. Bruce Gordon is a very successful business executive, but not an established civil rights figure. The choice comes as the group is facing financial struggles, tensions with the Bush administration, and the challenge of making the civil rights effort relevant to young people.
In his first comments after the NAACP board chose him as the group's president, Bruce Gordon acknowledged that he is not publicly associated with the civil rights struggle. But he presented his success in business as a result of the civil rights movement -- and as a way of carrying the movement forward. "Committed civil rights leaders around this country lived, and in many cases died, so that my generation could have opportunities that were denied them," he said. "And I believe that my generation had the full responsibility to walk in the doors that those brave people opened."
The 59-year-old retired executive was a leader of the telecommunications company Verizon. He has been hailed as a strong manager, and that is a central reason the NAACP chose him. The group has faced budget shortfalls for 2 years and had to dip into its reserves to keep its programs running and salaries paid. "This organization needs to achieve sustainable financial stability," Mr. Gordon said, identifying that as a top priority. "So I will quickly set a goal to build an endowment that is commensurate with the role and importance and significance of the NAACP."
The NAACP is also facing a political struggle. Its leadership has been openly at odds with President Bush over his domestic and foreign policies -- from education to health care to the war in Iraq. The group's Chairman, Julian Bond, and former president Kweisi Mfume openly criticized the administration.
Mr. Bush is the first president since the 1930's not to address the NAACP while in office. He called his relationship with the group basically non-existent. Bruce Gordon said he wants to change that, noting "There has to be some common ground that can be established between the White House and the NAACP that serves the mutual interest of both of those parties, so I expect going forward to find a way to forge that relationship."
But tension with the administration may be inevitable. The NAACP has 500,000 members. Many of them, like Hasan Crockett, oppose Mr. Bush's policies. Mr. Crockett teaches about civil rights groups at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta. He says any NAACP leader will have to push for change from the government -- and will clash with this administration. As he puts it, "I cannot see any person who is legitimately out there doing those battles being able to successfully dodge the political terms that will get you in trouble. I just don't see it." Professor Crockett says if Mr. Gordon's style is to be a fence-mender, that's fine -- as long as he doesn't bend on critical issues.
The new president is also being urged to reach out to young people, to help ensure the organization has a strong future. Lamont Roberts, 19, is head of South Carolina's NAACP youth and college division. He wants the NAACP leadership to employ hip-hop -- the voice of his generation -- to attract new recruits. "If our new president were to take us as young people and (get) us involved through a hip-hop movement, then we would be more empowered -- through poetry, through songs, through hip-hop."
In past generations, young people were often at the forefront of the national fight for social change, Jamie Jenkins, 20, who runs the NAACP chapter at Clark-Atlanta University, points out that's no longer the case. But she says if Bruce Gordon makes the right moves, young people could again become a driving force in the NAACP. "We have the energy, we have the drive. And ultimately, yes, they all have problems, but we're gonna have the problems a little bit longer," she laughs. She says problems like inadequate public schools, crowded prisons and the lack of job opportunities speak to her generation, and she wants the NAACP's new leader to make those issues top priorities.
It's unclear exactly what changes are in store for the organization. But Bruce Gordon has promised to do all he can to ensure the NAACP has a vibrant and successful future.