NEW YORK — Bruce S. Gordon's recent decision to quit as NAACP president after clashing with the board over the group's mission 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 how to 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 19 months ago, 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.
He rankled many board members when he traveled the country with a power-point 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."
Gordon is leaving, Bond said, because the organization is "resisting philosophical change. We're staying the course."
It's not that 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."
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.
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.
–The Associated Press