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When Kweisi Mfume took the reins of the NAACP as president and CEO in 1996, the organization was nearly $14 million in debt, tarnished by a costly sex scandal involving former President Benjamin F. Chavis, and grappling with questions about its relevancy.
With Mfume leaving his post effective Jan. 1, the organization’s finances are in the black and it had avoided scandal — until the recent Internal Revenue Service investigation into whether a speech made by Chairman Julian Bond violated federal rules that bar nonpartisan, nonprofit groups from participating in political activity.
That investigation of the NAACP’s tax-exempt status and Mfume’s departure could be the start of a tough transition for the group. The association must choose a new leader who can fine- tune its agenda and, at the same time, operate in what scholars describe as the most hostile political environment in 50 years.
“You have an angry, disaffected black community that has more hostility toward the current [presidential] administration than we’ve seen in decades,” says Michael Dawson, a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University. “It’s also a black community that is skeptical about both political parties and is politically isolated to a significant degree.”
The next NAACP president will face a challenge similar to the one encountered while the organization was fighting segregation: how to convince the majority of Americans that the current conservative agenda harms more than just black folks. “Particularly in the red states, the NAACP is going to have to return and fight for the souls of people,” says Alvin Thornton, associate provost at Howard University.
The key for the NAACP is to not to be reviewed as just a black organization, but to broaden its appeal as an American organization so that no matter what it does, black people are helped, says renowned civil rights lawyer and Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree. To achieve that, he says, the organization needs to do a better job of developing young political and economic activists.
Few scholars and civil rights leaders disagree that Mfume, 56, was successful in turning the NAACP around. Nine years ago, the organization had “a number of creditors at our door,” says Mfume. “Now, the NAACP has about $15 million in cash reserves.” He adds that the organization has tripled its staff and put a renewed focus on engaging a generation of younger blacks who, in recent years, had questioned the organization’s relevancy. Under Mfume, the NAACP more than doubled its campus branches to 110 and was a founding partner in the national hip-hop summit group organized by entertainment mogul Russell Simmons.
Rumors have circulated about a tenuous relationship between Mfume and Bond. The two men are both charismatic leaders with long civil rights track records — but with public styles of leadership that contrasted at times.
There has also been speculation about Mfume’s longing to return to the political stage, although publicly he has cited a desire to spend more time with his family as the motivation behind his resignation. Mfume gave up his seat in