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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mfume Will Preside Over Ailing NAACP

WASHINGTON -- In the decade since Yonkers, New York, school officials began busing students in response to a lawsuit by the NAACP, they have had little success in closing the wide performance gap between minority and white students in the system.


But last fall, when Kenneth Jenkins, president of the Yonkers NAACP, publicly suggested the $13 million-a-year busing plan may have "outlived its usefulness to achieve academic parity,'' the civil rights organization's national headquarters angrily rebuked him.


Jenkins was suspended and the NAACP issued a press release making it clear that it does not tolerate such breaches of orthodoxy.


"I'm suspended from a volunteer post in a volunteer organization; I don't know what that means,'' said Jenkins, 34, who is unrepentant.


"There is an entrenched group of people in this organization who feel it is their right to determine our course of action. But I have a saying: If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got.''


The controversy ignited by Jenkins's busing stand illuminates the fundamental dilemma facing the nation's oldest civil rights organization as Representative Kweisi Mfume takes over Thursday as the group's new president and chief executive: How it can respond to the new political and economic realities confronting African Americans without abandoning the principles that have made it one of the nation's leading forces for social change.


The selection of Mfume, who will officially resign Sunday from Congress, comes at a crucial moment for the NAACP, which has been reeling from a deep deficit, an inability to define its mission and internal problems that have muted its once booming public policy voice.


Where the NAACP was once in the forefront leading boycotts and filing lawsuits attacking legally sanctioned discrimination, the organization is now criticized for clinging to a glorious but increasingly distant past. Many in the African American community see its mantra of integration as sometimes missing the point.


Such criticisms have been resisted by members of the NAACP's board, many of whom earned their civil rights stripes during the NAACP's heyday. When former executive director Benjamin Chavis Jr. attempted to reach out to a broad range of African American leaders, including black nationalists such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, he met stiff opposition within the NAACP.


Mfume, 47, is confident he can make change. "The need for this organization has not diminished," Mfume said. "I don't want anybody ever to wonder again, what does the NAACP do?"


The often intransigent NAACP board seemed to acknowledge the need for change when it agreed to give Mfume the title of president as well as executive director.


The board, which begins its annual meeting today in New York, has also committed itself to shrinking its 64-member structure. But if Mfume is to be successful, he must rebuild an organization left in shambles after Chavis was fired 18 months ago for secretly using NAACP funds to settle a sexual harassment and discrimination charge.


The NAACP suffers from crippling budget problems that have left the organization $3.2 million in debt. And there have been charges of lavish overspending by former board president William Gibson, a South Carolina dentist.


But those problems pale in comparison to what some call the group's philosophical drift, which has left many NAACP members disillusioned.


After piling up a string of landmark civil rights victories in the 1950s and 1960s, the NAACP now finds its targets more elusive.


The complex array of social and economic problems facing African Americans makes the NAACP's mission all the more difficult.


Whatever its problems, there is no denying the NAACP's place as America's leading civil rights organization. It has a national network of 2,200 branches, a membership of 500,000 and an unparalleled history.


Mfume said his strategy will be to trade on the NAACP's legacy, while narrowing its mission and modernizing its operation.