NAACP Leadership Crisis: Blacks Have Never Had So Little and So Much

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are bringing new attention to civil rights and the country's lingering racial divide at a time when black Americans are seeing the best of times and the worst of times.

As the two Democratic candidates fiercely courted black voters in their bid for the White House in Selma, Ala., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced the resignation of its president, Bruce L. Gordon, signaling a leadership rift in America's oldest and largest civil rights organization.

Gordon took the job in June 2005, in part to help repair relations between the NAACP and the Bush administration. But just 19 months later, the 61-year-old former Verizon executive said he stepped down because of differences with the board of directors over direction of the organization.

No surprise, say civil rights experts, as the political landscape has changed dramatically.

Bush's administration is out of favor and Republicans have lost their majority in Congress. A black man is running for president. And the Democratic Party -- riding anti-war sentiment -- is gaining momentum for a presidential win in 2008, putting the key black vote back in play.

The weekend events underscore these contradictory times for many black Americans: They've never had so little and so much. Hurricane Katrina exposed, in the minds of some, America's underbelly of racism and poverty. But observers also contend that never before have blacks enjoyed such political clout.

"Things are as good now as they've ever been," said David Bositis, senior analyst for The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which supports research to improve the socioeconomic status of black Americans.

"You have a black governor in Massachusetts, a Congressional Black Caucus with many members in leadership positions," he said. "They have real power. On the other hand, the Bush presidency has been a catastrophe for blacks."

Social Justice vs. Social Service

Gordon's departure from the NAACP, some say, points to the pivotal issue confronting the group: What is its mission a generation after the major civil rights achievements of the 1960s?

"We want it to be a social justice organization; he [Gordon] wanted it to be more of a social service organization," NAACP Chairman Julian Bond told The New York Times. "Our mission is to fight racial discrimination and provide social justice. Social service organizations deal with the effects of racial discrimination. We deal with the beast itself."

At the time Gordon was picked, the 500,000-member organization had been under fire for revenue shortfalls, stagnant membership and ethical questions.

"The problems facing black America are acute and urgent," Urban League President Marc Morial said in a press release Monday. He pledged to work with "partners in the civil rights community to continue to concentrate on closing disparities in jobs, education and health that still exist across the nation."

Bositis believes the NAACP needed a shake-up at the top -- especially now that black voters are so important to the presidential election.

"I suspect the board was looking for a more activist president -- somebody to be on the political offensive," he said. "It's an entirely different environment now."

The Democratic party is "well-situated" to win back the White House and carry out its promise to close the disparities between blacks and whites, Bositis added.

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