Thursday, December 2, 2004

Kweisi Mfume’s sudden departure after nine years as president and chief executive officer of the NAACP signals a seismic quake that rattles far beyond the doors of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.

In a year when Bill Cosby’s fiery comments on black self-reliance have caused at least as much comment among black folks as anything said by the Revs. Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, sudden changes at the top of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference reveal an important evolution, if not a revolution.

Reports have leaked out for months that Mr. Mfume and Julian Bond, NAACP board chairman, have not been getting along, although both men displayed nothing but unity after Mr. Mfume’s announcement. Some board members have complained to me privately that Mr. Bond’s speech unnecessarily provoked the Internal Revenue Service review of the group’s tax-exempt, nonpartisan status and that he alienated black ministers by supporting same-sex “marriages.”

By remarkable coincidence, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth stepped down recently after less than a year in office as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., led to the mountaintop.

Rev. Shuttlesworth, chosen after a convention in which order had to be restored by police, succeeded Martin Luther King III, who had his own run-ins with the SCLC board. Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, a civil rights veteran who once served on the SCLC board, has suggested the group disband while it has some of its dignity left. He is not alone.

By further coincidence, both shakeups come at a time when President Bush saw his black turnout grow to 11 percent of the total black vote from only 8 percent four years earlier, despite attacks from black civil rights leaders like Mr. Bond.

Racism is still a problem, of course, but not as much of a problem for black Americans as it used to be. For example, we still have dismaying episodes like the Nov. 2 referendum in which Alabama voters narrowly failed to remove segregation-era language from the state constitution. Even though the old provision is unenforceable, its durability sends a chilling signal to black Americans who like to think race no longer matters.

Nevertheless, opportunities abound for those who are able and willing to take advantage of them. The struggle for equality involves more than civil rights. It also involves preparing our young people to take advantage of opportunities the civil rights movement opened for them.

America’s leading civil rights groups have been searching for new agendas since the 1960s. Meanwhile, the gap has grown larger between formerly poor blacks like me who have benefited from civil rights advances and those who have been left behind in a poverty and despair.

It is this gaping contradiction that enflamed Bill Cosby at a 50th anniversary observance of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision earlier this year in Washington. Infuriated by continuing black-on-black violence related to poverty, he unfurled a litany of self-reliance, personal responsibility and other moral values that need to be pounded into the heads of black youths and families.

Although media had a field day with a few black leaders who thought Mr. Cosby was harshly blaming the victim, Mr. Mfume, who was on the same stage, told me later he agreed completely with what Mr. Cosby said, even if he would not have used the same blunt language.

So have most other black folks whom I have heard in discussions, formal and informal, following Mr. Cosby’s comments, which he later re-emphasized at the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH Headquarters and other venues.

By comparison, hardly anyone but President Bush seemed to notice when Mr. Bond unleashed a thoroughly predictable anti-Bush attack at the NAACP’s July convention. Although Mr. Bush addressed the NAACP as a candidate in 2000, he has since been the first president since Herbert Hoover to skip the group’s annual gatherings. Later, he described his relationship with the NAACP leadership as “basically nonexistent.”

Instead, Mr. Bush spoke to the National Urban League and continued his outreach to black churches, among other organizations, through his faith-based initiatives.

After the election, Mr. Mfume sent a congratulatory letter to Mr. Bush and asked for a bridge-building meeting between the administration and the organization. Since Mr. Bush has not shown much interest in talking even to Republicans who are not 100 percent on board with his programs, I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to meet with the NAACP. Apparently Mr. Mfume isn’t, either.

That leaves the NAACP to launch a new search for a new leader. I suggest Bill Cosby.

He might not jump at the opportunity, but he seems to have his priorities straight.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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