SINCE shortly after its birth in 1909, the NAACP, the nation's oldest and most revered civil rights organization, has published a magazine called The Crisis. As its centennial anniversary approaches in 2009, the group is facing both an identity and leadership crisis.
There were high expectations for retired corporate executive Bruce S. Gordon when he took over in July, 2005. But he has abruptly resigned after barely a year and a half on the job, frustrated with having his hands tied by a board deeply rooted in civil rights struggles of old.
The former Verizon executive was expected to infuse the organization with new ideas, improve finances, and increase membership. But events didn't proceed as expected and, in hindsight, perhaps that's not so much of a surprise after all.
Frankly, it's amazing that Mr. Gordon lasted as long as he did. In fact, board chairman Julian Bond talked him into staying only weeks after getting on board. As a corporate man, his style was to execute and to lead in a businesslike fashion, and the board didn't expect that. As an African-American, he was among the millions of minorities who have benefited from the civil rights movement.
As NAACP leader, however, he was unlike the last three decades of directors, who have been public officials, civil rights figures, or ministers. His style was further hindered by many of the board's 64 members who see the world from the perspective of their own roles in the civil rights battles. He may have felt they were living in the past. They may have felt he was insensitive to the organization's soul. Unfortunately, both sides may have been right.
The NAACP will enter its second century in a very different world from the one it helped change. Lynching and Jim Crow are gone, in large part because of the NAACP. But subtler forms of discrimination and disadvantage are still very much alive, and in some ways harder to fight. Nobody is saying the NAACP is no longer needed. Now, as always, it does a fine job standing in the gap between victims of unfairness and the victimizers.
But it may need to expand its message and what it does.
Whatever his failings, Mr. Gordon was right when he talked about promoting financial literacy and home ownership. That makes sense.
Today, it is sometimes hard for, say, a 33-year-old black or Asian banker in Boston to see why he needs a civil rights group. Whoever next leads the NAACP must never forget its proud tradition, or those who still suffer. But if it intends to attract new membership, particularly among minorities who were not there when civil rights battles took place, it needs leadership prepared to do some things differently.
Mr. Bond was right when he said "we're not post-civil rights. The struggle continues." But the playing field changes, and the NAACP needs to change with it.