Today's civil rights leaders know Black America still faces mountains of injustice. None other than Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr. charges that legislation as precious as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been only loosely enforced, undermining the legitimacy of black votes. Crime is up, and jails, which disproportionately incarcerate blacks, are "the biggest industry in several states," he says. The gap between black and white educational attainment is widening.
"We're facing a violent backlash to the gains of the last 50 years," Jackson says. "We've never known head winds of resistance this stiff."
No doubt the nation's oldest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, makes an impact already. It's the only civil rights group with an active lobby on Capitol Hill. Its fight for fairness in education recently resulted in the passing of a referendum to reduce class sizes in Florida public schools. And, among other things, the NAACP has expended considerable resources to lessen the scourge of HIV/AIDS, partnering with many outfits to distribute information about the disease and recently announcing a three-year $1 million dollar partnership with Pfizer (PFE) to develop advocacy programs in health -- including HIV/AIDS.
Still, many feel the NAACP needs to play a bigger role. Some worry that after 96 years its members have become disengaged, its methods anachronistic relics of 1960s protest. "They have no vision of what to do in terms of being relevant," says Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former NAACP staffer.
BusinessWeek's Chicago Deputy Bureau Manager, Roger O. Crockett, talked to NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond about the accusations against his organization and the challenges ahead. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What's your response to the many who say that given the continued struggles of African Americans, advocacy alone is not sufficient for the NAACP?
A: We're not a social service organization, we are a social justice organization. We're one of the few that advocate for justice, and we believe that if you have justice, you don't need service. We fight racial discrimination. That's what we do.
So when someone says, "Why don't you give in to this great tutorial instinct?" we say, "That's not what we do." It's like saying to the Boy Scouts: "Why not teach girls how to play football?" It might be a good idea, but it's not what we do.
Q: It's hard to fight discrimination on every front, so where do you focus your battles?
A: We fight for equity in education, employment, housing, and the courts -- and every aspect of American life. If one were more important it would be education. But we think they're of equal importance and one affects the other. They're interdependent.
Q: But conditions for African Americans are still far from optimal. Do you agree that the NAACP needs to do more?
A: We can do more in the fight for justice, and we're trying as hard as we can to do more. To grow [our] membership, increase resources, and sharpen our tools. Injustice hasn't diminished. It certainly hasn't gone away, and America needs an organization that's fighting for justice.
Q: What happened to cause former CEO Kweisi Mfume to resign?
A: The view [is] that there's some personality conflict or conflict over our programs -- none of that's true. He said he left because it was time to move on.
Q: What's your response to those that charge you should open up your search process to include input from more outsiders?
A: Nobody else does that. Why should we? I don't know how much more open it could be. We have formed a search committee with a minority of outside members. We have employed Charles Tribbett at [executive-search firm] Russell Reynolds to help with the search.
Q: So what sort of leader are you seeking as your next CEO?
A: Ideally want someone that can speak like Martin Luther King. But there's nobody like that. And we want someone that can raise money like Bill Gates [chuckles].
We want someone with good managerial abilities, and a public persona -- someone comfortable in the public and with experience in civil rights activity. We asked the board to list the characteristics they're interested in. Commitment to the organization and knowledge of it is important. We're looking for the sort of characteristics you would look for if you were looking for someone to run the most important private company in the market.
Q: Will you have picked a new leader by your Feb. 19 annual meeting?
A: No, it won't be done by the annual meeting. Our long-term time table is the July convention in Milwaukee.
Q: You recently leveled criticism against the Bush Administration, and now the IRS has chosen to subpoena your tax documents, suggesting that the NAACP violated its nonprofit status. To what degree is the investigation a hindrance to your activities?
A: On Jan. 27, we sent a letter to the IRS refusing the subpoena asking for documents. We want to make them get the Justice Dept. to come after that. We believe that [their action] is partisan in nature. It's intended to suppress our activities in the months before an election. There's no [evidence] that I improperly interfered with the election.
The allegation comes from two Republican Congressmen. They say that I condemned the President's policies. If condemnation of policy is grounds for an IRS investigation then 55 million Americans ought to have their taxes audited.