Trying to put a yearlong series of internal disputes behind it, the NAACP on Saturday ousted William F. Gibson, the strong-willed chairman who has led the civil rights organization since 1985, and chose Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, as his replacement.
"It is time to heal our wounds," Evers-Williams said in an emotional victory speech shortly after the NAACP board of directors elected her by a 30-29 vote. "We will move forward because we are family."
As her supporters cheered, Evers-Williams, the first woman to hold the group's top post, thanked the board, and credited the 2,200 branches of the National Assn. for Advancement of Colored People for her narrow victory. "You make up this association," she said. "You have done a wonderful job. You just had to do a few things at the top."
The board's election of Evers-Williams followed a rank-and-file vote of "no confidence" in Gibson's leadership and signals a dramatic change for the nation's oldest civil rights organization. By ending the reign of a chairman known for the firm grip he maintained on NAACP finances and operations, the organization hopes to regain credibility with supporters and challenge opponents to a new debate on civil rights issues, Evers-Williams said.
For more than a year, the group's leaders have been more preoccupied with internal scandals and crises than with external social and political issues, despite the ascendancy of a Republican-controlled Congress that has begun to mount assaults on programs long championed by the NAACP.
Evers-Williams promised to reassert the NAACP's traditional authority on civil rights issues by challenging many of the bills offered by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his conservative allies.
"This 104th Congress is a dangerous one," she said. "With this new beginning and fresh start, I say to you we will be able to address what they are doing in Washington. We in this organization will be able to make Newt old."
The man she replaces had been embroiled in scandals for most of the past year. Gibson, a Greenville, S.C., dentist, tried to fend off charges he improperly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of the association's money for his personal use, preventing the NAACP from accomplishing little more than defending itself against internal lawsuits and demands for new leaders.
Gibson, who tried to persuade the NAACP board to keep him as chairman, was said to be in a closed meeting during Evers-Williams' victory speech and issued no statement on his defeat.
Ben Andrews Jr., who served as vice chairman during Gibson's tenure but supported Evers-Williams in Saturday's election, said that Gibson didn't react strongly when the tally was announced.
"He just stood straight and passed the gavel over," said Andrews, who also lost his leadership position in the voting. "The voting was the most democratic I've seen in my 18 years on the board. We are taking a step in the right direction."
By replacing Gibson with Evers-Williams, the NAACP responded to a growing chorus of critics who demanded that the organization restore confidence in its national leadership by installing a new slate of officials. Medgar Evers was shot to death in 1963 in Jackson, Miss., while he was the group's national field director organizing voter-rights campaigns.
Evers-Williams, 62, author of "For Us, the Living," about her first husband, is a longtime NAACP board member. She announced her candidacy from her home in Bend, Ore., a few weeks ago.
She is a former commissioner of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. She also has been an executive at Atlantic Richfield Co., a Los Angeles-based oil company; an executive at Seligman & Lapz, a New York-based advertising firm, and an administrator for the Claremont Colleges. She is married to Walter Williams.
Besides electing Evers-Williams, the NAACP chose seven new board members, several with reputations as reformers. Among them were civil rights activist Julian Bond, who had been ousted from the board in 1992 after quarreling with Gibson, and Hazel Dukes, who was dismissed as board president for feuding with Gibson.
The reformers were elected by general members last year, but they were not announced until this weekend's annual meeting. They have promised to overhaul fiscal and operational procedures in an effort to regain the financial support of corporations and foundations who withdrew because of the scandals.
The board voted to retain its president, Rupert Richardson, who had served under Gibson and was one of the former chairman's strongest supporters. It voted to replace Treasurer Jerry Maulden of Arkansas with Frank Borges, a Wall Street money manager.
Sources said Richardson retained her seat by impressing board members with her evenhanded conduct during a raucous 3 1/2-hour session preceding the board meeting. Maulden, another Gibson supporter, lost his seat because of what some members described as his inability to satisfactorily answer questions about the group's financial situation.
Gibson's ouster was the final act in a day full of high drama, raw emotion and occasional surprises. Supporters of both candidates said privately they had expected Gibson to retain his position because of his close ties to the board members.
His fall from grace apparently dates to last summer, when the board learned that former Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. had settled a sexual discrimination complaint filed by an employee with $334,000 of the NAACP's money. Gibson had been an ardent supporter of Chavis, who had alienated many members and financial supporters by establishing ties with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Gibson gradually distanced himself from Chavis, who was fired by the board amid a volley of lawsuits.
Before long, Gibson's actions came under scrutiny. Board members were shocked by media accounts that Gibson had charged more than $500,000 in personal expenses to a corporate credit card and that he had failed to properly account for travel and entertainment charges he billed to the group. The revelations came at a time when the NAACP was racking up debts of more than $4 million, forcing it to lay off staff and cut back programs.
Through it all, many of Gibson's supporters were confident he would survive the furor.
Board member Larry Carter of Des Moines, urged members to stick with the embattled chairman. "I'm from middle America. We have many problems in the NAACP. But Dr. Gibson is not the problem. He's one of the greatest civil rights leaders of all time."
But the confidence of Gibson supporters paled against Evers-Williams' boisterous backers.
Many of the estimated 700 rank-and-file NAACP members in attendance took turns demanding that the organization change its top leaders, with Evers-Williams' supporters growing more emboldened as the meeting wore on. Waving placards saying "Clean House Now," they seized control of the proceedings and offered a resolution expressing "no confidence" in the board. The measure was approved by a near-unanimous vote.
Earlier, Gibson had looked on impassively as the dissidents voted to reject Maulden's financial report. Midway through the report, Gibson stepped away from the head table, where he had sat silently for most of the morning. He never returned, declining to offer the traditional chairman's remarks to the membership, and missing the no-confidence vote that signaled the end of his leadership hours before the board election would make it final.