One Sunday last summer at a storefront church in South-Central Los Angeles, a young man stood at the pulpit and said he knew, to some blacks, the NAACP stood for “the National Assn. for the Advancement of Certain People.”
Anthony M. Essex, at age 31, had just become the youngest president ever of the 63-year-old Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. He talked of shaking up a chapter some portrayed as an insular and cliquish operation.
But today, Essex stands accused of putting the interests of one certain person--himself--ahead of the cause.
His short, spirited tenure as Los Angeles chapter president has led to charges of ethical improprieties against Essex, a formal reprimand over the unauthorized spending of more than $5,000 and an aggressive campaign to defeat him in an election March 12.
The politics are not polite. Opponents investigating his background have publicized the fact that Essex, a financial consultant by profession, was fired in 1985 from a job as a loan officer at Founders Savings & Loan because of a series of dubious loans, including mortgages on his own house, his mother’s and a friend’s. And though Essex now advertises himself as a financial expert, he himself filed for personal bankruptcy in late 1987.
Joseph H. Duff, a 43-year-old attorney best known for his work in the Los Angeles school desegregation case, said these “ethical problems” prompted him to challenge Essex for the branch presidency.
“If you’re going to come into an organization,” Duff explained, “and say ‘Throw the rascals out!’ . . . well, you better be able to show that they’re rascals--and that you aren’t.”
Essex, in response, said he has become the victim of an overblown campaign of “character assassination.” By his account, he has inspired a rebirth of activism and a membership increase of more than 2,000, to more than 7,000, mostly among people “who had given up on the NAACP.”
His opponents, he said, are those same “certain people . . . career NAACPers” who resent change and never wanted him to become president in the first place.
Besides the ethical issue, the two men differ on what strategy the group should pursue. Duff points to school desegregation as an example of the long-term, substantive issue that has been the hallmark of the NAACP and dismisses his opponent as a showman. Essex maintains that the organization needs to become more aggressive in a wider range of social issues, including crime, gangs and jobs.
Essex was not elected to his present post. Rather, he was elected first vice president in 1987 and ascended to the presidency last June after President Raymond Johnson Jr. resigned, moving to Birmingham, Ala. At the same time, Duff ascended from second to first vice president.
It did not take long for troubles to start.
The first problem occurred when Essex spent more than $4,800 of the chapter’s money for a reception after his promotion. Essex said the purpose of the event was to publicize the chapter, but opponents portray it as an exercise in self-aggrandizement.
Charges were leveled that Essex violated NAACP policy by failing to get approval of the branch Executive Board for the event.
“I’m the elected secretary of the board, and I never received an invitation” to the reception, Norma King said. “I didn’t know about it until after it had been held. . . . Neither the Executive Committee nor secretary was part of planning. We have no idea who he invited and we certainly didn’t know that we had to pay for it.”
Worse, opponents say, was the fact that the chapter, suffering financially, had just been provided $10,000 from the national office. “And here we were spending $5,000 on a reception? The timing was very bad,” Duff recalled.
Henry Dotson, assistant treasurer, said Essex was “very recalcitrant” when they discussed the procedural violations. “He had the mistaken impression that he was the chief executive officer and he was solely in charge, without any concurrence of the Executive Committee,” Dotson said.
Later, Essex decided to buy a $310 briefcase with chapter money.
Essex said he thought that the purchase was appropriate because Johnson had left behind a “three-foot stack of paper work,” forcing him to take NAACP work home with him.
“The briefcase--the bottom line--it didn’t matter to me,” Essex said. “I have six or seven briefcases, so I didn’t need a briefcase. But because I put my initials on it, they said I personalized it and would have to pay for it. I said no big deal.”
The frequent clashes came to a head, Dotson said, when Essex pressured a valued staff member into resigning. The Executive Board subsequently reinstated her.
Last September, three months after Essex became president, Dotson, King and eight other officers signed a formal complaint against Essex with the NAACP national office. An investigation was begun as William Penn, national director of NAACP branches, temporarily took over administration of the Los Angeles chapter. He ordered the elections originally scheduled for Dec. 18 postponed.
The probe concluded with a formal reprimand last month of Essex and orders that he reimburse the branch for the costs of the reception and the briefcase by March 16. If he fails to repay the money, “Mr. Essex will be ineligible to hold office or to run for any office in any unit of the NAACP for the next four years,” Penn said in a formal statement.
Essex said he has so far repaid about $3,300 by soliciting donations from corporations and other sources, including Councilman Gilbert Lindsay.
Penn, when asked whether such contributions were appropriate, refused comment, calling the controversy “an internal matter.”
Essex portrayed the inquiry’s findings as “an exoneration” because the national officers merely found procedural violations. The national board could have stripped him of his office had they found more substantial wrongdoing, but “they recognized it was just the politics of the local branch,” he said.
Essex said his dispute with other officers stems in part from fund raising for the Crenshaw Economic Development Corp., a private operation founded in 1985 with the goal of building a new local headquarters--the source of a longstanding dispute. The corporation officers, who are also officers of the NAACP branch, are negotiating with the national NAACP over the use of $60,000 in the corporation’s accounts. Essex wants to disband the corporation and have the local office retain control of the funds.
Opponents suggest that Essex raises the issue simply to distract attention from his bankruptcy, which he has since resolved, and troubles at Founders Savings & Loan.
Within days of filing for personal bankruptcy, Essex wrote a letter to Mayor Tom Bradley proposing that he be hired as a “community-based consultant” to work on a minority-participation program in the development of the Crenshaw Shopping Plaza. At the same time, Essex was representing the NAACP in negotiations with the shopping center developer. He was not hired.
The letter, like the briefcase, shows that Essex “doesn’t know when to break off his business from our business,” Duff said.
Such issues, Essex said, “really have nothing to do with my ability to run the NAACP. . . . That’s character assassination.”
Essex said Founders fired him while he was on stress disability leave. “I elected to sue. Founders countersued, and that’s where we are.”
Not all old-time NAACP members oppose Essex. One supporter is bail bondsman Celes King, a past president of the organization and no relation to Norma.
“He’s really a very good mainstream activist,” King said. “I think the time is now for a mainstream activist like Essex. Some people want to be more aggressive, some are interested in not rocking the boat. He’s in-between.”
Detractors portray Essex as more of a showman than a leader. “He tends to go for kind of glitzy opportunities that get attention on the short term,” Duff said. “I would work toward contributing in the longer-term, more traditional civil rights policy goals.”
Essex has proven himself a divisive influence, Duff asserted. “I can put generations together, the classes together. . . . It’s better for us to network with other groups and not necessarily take on all the burdens of the African-American people.”
Both candidates are predicting victory March 12. Essex, nominated by petition, says his “pro-active” agenda and grass-roots recruitment efforts give him the edge. But Duff’s allies say that about half of the 2,000 recruits claimed by Essex are really theirs.
Win or lose, Essex sees many possibilities for himself ahead--perhaps in politics.
“That’s a possibility, but I really don’t like living in a fish bowl,” he said. “I truly believe that God has more in store, with me, with dealing with the NAACP, and this kind of foolishness, doing 30 to 40 hours work for community with no compensation.
“I am not going to be one of those career NAACPers.”
Times staff writer Judy Pasternak contributed to this article.