When Kweisi Mfume took the helm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) in 1996, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization was in crisis. Mired in debt and stung by a sex scandal involving ousted executive director Benjamin Chavis, the group needed a leader who could restore its credibility. Mfume, a five-term Democratic Congressman from Baltimore, stepped up to the challenge. Through a campaign of corporate sponsorship, he erased the group's $3.2 million in debt and stockpiled $15 million in cash reserves.
But the fate of Mfume's social initiatives proved less successful and were emblematic of an identity crisis within the group. "We have all this money to spend, but I don't feel like the N.A.A.C.P. is effective as a civil rights organization," says Michael Meyers, a former assistant director of the organization and now executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. While Mfume made headlines for grading Hollywood on minority representation and denouncing ebonics ("black English"), detractors say he did little to draw attention to the health, education and criminal-justice issues that still cripple many in the black community. Laments Jerome Whyatt Mondesire, president of the group's Philadelphia chapter: "We've moved away from the grass-root courtroom battles that made us relevant to the plight of lower-income blacks."
Mfume stepped down as president on Jan. 1, citing personal reasons, but sources close to the organization told TIME that the N.A.A.C.P.'s executive committee voted against renewing his contract. The issue was nepotism, which came to a head when Mfume allegedly appointed his son's girlfriend as director of corporate and foundation development in June 2003. The incident followed other actions benefitting friends of Mfume's and was the deciding factor, says Meyers, a longtime critic of the organization. Mfume declined to speak about the allegations.
Now the N.A.A.C.P. is once again seeking a leader and is at another critical juncture. It is searching for someone who can both address the divergent concerns of the nation's 36 million African Americans and navigate an increasingly hostile political climate. After declining to speak at the group's annual meeting last July, President Bush called his relationship with the N.A.A.C.P. "basically nonexistent." (Bush met privately with Mfume in late December.) Then the President named Gerald Reynolds, a conservative black Republican with a record of opposing civil rights protections, to head the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "Racism is not a deal killer like it was in the '60s," Reynolds told TIME. "You can work around it." And a new study by Syracuse University found that federal enforcement of civil rights laws fell drastically from 1999 to 2003. During that period, the number of cases prosecuted dropped nearly 50%, despite a steady number of complaints.