When the vacancy opened this winter for president of the nation's oldest civil rights organization, many within and outside the NAACP said it was time a woman held the job. After all, men have overseen the group's day-to-day leadership since 1916.
But today in Atlanta, the 64-member board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is expected to approve former Verizon executive Bruce S. Gordon as the 96-year-old organization's new president and chief executive officer.
Though Gordon has been praised for the strong record of success in corporate America that he can bring to the organization, some fear that the NAACP is losing out on a potentially image-changing opportunity.
The questions are timely, given previous sexual harassment charges under former NAACP President Benjamin F. Chavis and recent allegations that the climate of the NAACP's Baltimore headquarters is hostile toward female employees.
Some blame the culture of civil rights organizations, long dominated by men. Others say the demanding schedule required of the position discouraged top-notch female candidates from applying.
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said at the beginning of the search that he hoped to find strong female candidates, and other women on the group's national board say they actively sought to encourage women to apply.
Hazel N. Dukes said she called two high-profile women herself but failed to persuade them to consider the job.
Alice Huffman said she and the other two women on the organization's nine-member search committee pressed the search firm hired by the NAACP for female candidates. But Huffman encountered the same trouble Dukes did: Some women said they didn't want the job.
"In my opinion, the giants did not apply," Huffman says. "I was very disappointed."
Huffman said she thinks candidates - male and female - were hesitant to work under what some people think is an unwieldy 64-member board. Others, perhaps, did not want to give up the salaries and perks of corporate America, she said.
Dukes said women are still torn between work and family, and the high-profile position of NAACP president requires a punishing travel schedule and many sacrifices.
"I hope that there will be women coming up in the next generation that will see leadership as a commitment," Dukes said. "But most women already have two jobs - their day job and their families. That's not taking away from women's abilities. But I think the demand and pressure on us to do it all is different than for men."
The decades of male leadership within the NAACP have proven difficult to overcome, said some men and women within the organization.
"It's disappointing they didn't go for a woman," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP. He suggested that potential female candidates could have included Elaine Jones, former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, or Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat.
"I have always thought, for affirmative action reasons, they should have went out of their way to find a woman," said Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University who has studied black leadership in the post-civil rights era.
"Women historically have done a lot of the basic ongoing work at the national and especially the local level," he said, "but there is a reluctance to reward women with the leadership that their work would suggest they have."
A decade ago, when Myrlie Evers-Williams won the chairmanship of the NAACP by one vote, opponents said that the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers was ill-prepared to lead the nation's oldest civil rights group.
"People would say, 'What does she know? What can she do? She's just the widow. Medgar was the man,'" recalled Dukes, a longtime friend of Evers-Williams and fellow NAACP board member. "I was one of the ones beating the bushes for her. It absolutely frustrated me."
Male leadership is not unique to the NAACP. The face of civil rights in America remains largely male.
Most of the "big six black leaders" are men, Smith said: Marc H. Morial, the head of the National Urban League; Congressional Black Caucus President Melvin L. Watt; the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan; and media-savvy Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse L. Jackson. The exception is Dorothy I. Height, 93, president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women, who is known as the "grand dame of the civil rights movement."
While the Legal Defense Fund's former president was a woman and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is headed by Barbara Arnwine, those groups are not well-known, Smith said.
"If this person Bruce Gordon had been Joyce Gordon, for example, the same background, the same person, it would have been an extraordinary story," he said. "It would have vindicated the NAACP's long-standing position on affirmative action - that you should deliberately recruit people who have long-standing been denied opportunities."
Outsiders say that if the NAACP had picked a female president, it could have put to rest the stigma of allegations that Mfume ran the national office amid a climate of sexual favoritism. The allegations forced the NAACP to reportedly pay a former female employee a settlement of nearly $100,000. Mfume - now a Senate candidate in Maryland - has denied the accusations and the existence of a settlement, saying he resigned voluntarily.
The allegations came a decade after Chavis was forced out of the organization amid a sex scandal and financial misconduct that landed the organization $3 million in debt.
The absence of women in leadership roles is steeped in civil rights history. The civil rights movement was built upon the prominence of leading men, say scholars, while women - consistent with the roles of other women in America during that era - played support roles. It's the reason that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is considered a legend, while civil rights activist Ella Baker is a little-known footnote, says Smith.
But women orchestrated rallies and did the hard work upon which the movement was built, argues civil rights historian Manning Marable in a new book, The Autobiography of Medgar Evers.
Throughout the movement, women made phone calls, visited people's homes, organized community meetings and mobilized supporters, Marable writes. Activists Rosa Parks and Jo Ann Robinson played key roles in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. And Baker, often critical of the NAACP leadership structure, helped organize the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom at the Washington Mall in 1957, according to Marable's book.
In fact, women led the NAACP in the group's early years. The first three executive secretaries - as the president was then called - were women. A woman ran the board of directors from 1919 to 1934, then from 1975 to 1983, and Evers-Williams held the chairmanship from 1995 to 1998.
Three women, including Dukes and Baltimore native Enolia McMillan, have also held the ceremonial post of NAACP national president. And Roslyn Brock is the organization's vice chairwoman, the first woman to hold the position.
Even so, critics argue that civil rights organizations are hindered by a long-standing male-dominated structure.
"Women were not presidents back then; most were male," Dukes said. "And in the Southern states, there's no doubt about it that the attitude of men was for women to play a supportive role."
But that is changing, she said, crediting Evers-Williams with proving skeptics wrong.
"She did such a good job, that nobody could look at a woman as being weak and unable to stand up to the pressure," she said. "She set a precedent."
Still, Dukes said that there are some on the NAACP board who wouldn't favor a woman leader.
"But they are not the people who were on the search committee," she said.
Huffman argues that the visibility of women in leadership roles may be a matter of perception. Within the board, women are strong, even dominating, but the public image of the NAACP is often male, she said.
Mfume is often credited with repairing the NAACP's image and returning the organization to financial solvency. But it was Evers-Williams who laid the groundwork that eliminated the $3 million debt, says Huffman.
"She doesn't get the credit for bringing us out of the debt we were in and updating our image," she said. "I think Mfume is riding on Myrlie Evers' coattails. But I think it has to do more with the fact that Myrlie wasn't the kind of person with the type of ego to constantly promote herself."
Huffman said she thinks many women are reluctant to put themselves into the limelight. But she hopes that that is changing.
"I give lectures on this all the time," she said. "I tell people: 'Don't be shy about your skills; don't be cocky about them, either. But this is a world in which you have to promote yourself to get ahead.'"
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