March 8, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 30
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As Gordon exits, NAACP pledges focus on activism

Erin Texeira

NEW YORK — Bruce S. Gordon quit as NAACP president after clashing with the board over the group’s modern-day mission, a move that highlights a stubborn problem for activists: how to do civil rights work in an era decades after the movement’s peak.

Should the NAACP have allowed Gordon, as Chairman Julian Bond put it, to “pull [them] into the post-civil rights period?”

Bond firmly rejected the idea.

“We’re not post-civil rights,” he said. “The struggle continues.”

Bond and other members of the 64-person board he leads believe that, though dramatic gains have been made in race relations since the 1950s, the movement has not yet completed its task — and won’t until persistent racial gaps in achievement and opportunity disappear.

Few American blacks would quibble that equality remains an unfulfilled dream.

Gordon recognizes that, too. He often sparked applause among NAACP rank-and-file when he paraphrased Charles Dickens, telling them that, “for African Americans, this is the best of times and the worst of times.”

But the question remains: how should the NAACP address the “worst” part?

The Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, since its founding in 1909, has focused on advocacy — raising public awareness of inequality — not service. For instance, to combat black unemployment, the group would hold protest marches, gather signatures and lobby elected officials for better public policy. It would not offer skills training or make job referrals.

But from the start of his presidency, Gordon made clear he wanted to do more of the latter — and he repeatedly resisted being reined in by the NAACP’s traditional mission or its enforcement body, the board of directors. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Gordon acknowledged that NAACP Chairman Julian Bond had to talk him out of quitting just weeks after he took over in the summer of 2005.

Gordon rankled many board members when he traveled the country with a Microsoft PowerPoint slide show detailing his plans for providing social services.

“We are going to be very outcome-oriented, very results-oriented,” he said last July, “as opposed to activity and effort-oriented.”

Gordon’s goals of closing racial disparities in wealth, education and on prison rolls were, he admitted then, “high bars.”

“But if we don’t engage in addressing the fundamental issues that, to me, represent the civil rights struggles of the 21st century, then we shouldn’t exist,” he said.

Gordon is leaving, Bond said, because the organization is “resisting philosophical change. We’re staying the course.”

It’s not that the NAACP hasn’t considered changing. Starting in 2000, board members re-evaluated the group’s mission and strategic plan with experts at Harvard University’s School of Business, said Rupert Richardson, a board member from Baton Rouge, La.

“We spent four years studying how we could effectively bring about change in this country,” Richardson said. “We came to the conclusion that advocacy was the way we should focus. Other organizations do service. We felt we were created to advocate for justice.”

Richardson further explained in a published report that the problems went beyond substance: Gordon and the board had incompatible leadership styles.

“We would have liked the opportunity to work with him, but he came with this corporate attitude of: ‘You hired me to do this job and get out of the way and let me do it,’” Richardson told the Baltimore Sun. “That’s not how things work in most civil rights organizations, and certainly not at the NAACP.”

But Gordon, a retired Verizon Corp. executive, questions the wisdom in that — and so do others.

“The NAACP struggled for almost 100 years to get basic citizenship rights [for blacks],” said Robert C. Smith, a political scientist at California State University at San Francisco. “They won that. ... We are now in the post-civil rights era.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 secured blacks’ basic citizenship rights and opened countless opportunities to new generations. Today, the black middle class is bigger than ever. Blacks graduate high school at nearly the same rate as whites. In many arenas, from politics to entertainment, African Americans are holding their own and excelling.

Much of the credit goes to the NAACP and other civil rights groups. Even in the last week, there have been reminders of the nation’s progress — and the waning relevance of a group that battled for integration.

On Sunday, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton gathered with other national leaders, white and black, in Selma, Ala., for the high-profile anniversary of a 1965 civil rights protest. Blacks suffered brutal attacks during the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights, which spotlighted for the nation the racial injustices in the South and propelled the movement forward.

Last Friday, the NAACP’s annual Image Awards ceremony in Los Angeles — begun in 1967 to honor long-ignored blacks in Hollywood — lauded actors Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson. The two have hardly been overlooked lately. They’ve each won a pile of mainstream film awards, including Oscars.

“Hollywood has finally caught up to the NAACP,” said Donna Brazile, a black Democratic strategist.

It’s a new day. Many had hoped Gordon would help lead the organization into another era.

Instead, the group is appointing a search committee to find a new president for the second time in less than three years.

As during the organization’s last search, after Kweisi Mfume’s resignation, Dennis C. Hayes, the NAACP’s general counsel, will lead the organization in the interim.

In replacing Mfume, Gordon came to an organization with concerns over stagnant membership, questions about its relevance and budget problems. In 2005, the NAACP used reserve funds to cover a $4.7 million budget shortfall and asked a dozen employees at its Baltimore headquarters to take lower-paying positions.

(Associated Press)

Former NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon responds to a question during an interview in New York in this June 2006 file photo. Gordon has quit the civil rights organization after just 19 months at the helm. (AP photo/Seth Wenig)

Gordon speaks out after stepping down

Former NAACP president Bruce S. Gordon granted his first television interview on his abrupt resignation to PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley. The interview aired Monday night.

In the interview, Gordon explained the nature of the rift with the NAACP’s Board of Directors:

“A 64-person board under any scenario is an unwieldy entity to govern. Purely on the surface, the numbers work against us being very effective. But let me be very clear: there are members of our board who are long-term, committed members of the association, committed to civil rights. They’re bright, they’re talented, they’re active. And I enjoyed a very productive working relationship with them. It’s just that I didn’t have enough. This association has been smart enough to examine its approach to governance. It has done analysis and has concluded that it can do better but has not had the appetite to make the changes that can make it even better.

“I think we’re a good organization. But I didn’t come here to manage a good organization. I came here to lead a great organization, or lead a good organization to greatness. But it’s difficult to accomplish when, in fact, you have 64 people who have points of view on how that can be accomplished.”

When Smiley asked how he would respond to being called a “quitter,” Gordon responded:

“I hate the fact that I even put myself in a position where people can ask that question. I think it is a fair question. But I look at it this way. The NAACP is bigger than one person. The NAACP was around before I was born. It should be around long after I’m gone. I’ve got to look at it and ask myself the question, ‘Am I the person who was going to be effective in taking this organization where it needs to be?’ My conclusion is despite the confidence I have in myself, despite the skills and talents I think that I bring to the table that can help the NAACP, I’m not satisfied that I have been nearly as effective as I want to be or I need to be. So, it left me with a choice. Do I stick this out and under-perform, or do I step aside and make room for a different person who may bring a different style and techniques to the table to take the NAACP forward? They are bigger than I am in stature and purpose and legacy. I think I made a choice in the best interest of the association. I hope that I’m right. But I’m disappointed that it’s gotten to this. I’ve never quit anything in my life, and this is a position I don’t enjoy.”

Asked whether he perceived it as just a problem between a board and a CEO or a larger issue of an organization in trouble, Gordon answered:

“The NAACP has two fabulous assets: a well-recognized brand and 2,000 operating units across the country. These are assets that can be very powerful, but they are underperforming. There has to be an acceptance, a willingness to change. You can’t do the same thing for 98 years and expect that you will succeed … In business terminology, we would argue that organizations that are no longer customer-focused — who lose the heart of the customer, who lose the choice of the customer — will ultimately fail. I’m afraid that at this very point that our organization is more internally focused than externally focused. That keeps us from being great and allows us to only be good. I think that the NAACP has powerful potential, but that potential will never be realized if we go about our work using 20th century approaches.”

Lastly, Smiley asked Gordon if he had any regrets about taking the job:

“I am disappointed that I sit here today talking about my departure only 19 months later. But better to have tried and not succeeded than not to try at all. Our people and our communities need all of us to value those communities so deeply that we’re willing to take chances, willing to make sacrifices. I took a chance. [My wife and I] owed it to ourselves and we owed it to our people to give this our best shot. I am confident that the both of us gave it our best shot. We came up short. I’m sorry about that, but I have no regrets for having tried.”

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