Civil Rights Leader Presses a Full Agenda

Monday, January 16, 2006

The NAACP needed a shake-up. Its membership -- about 500,000 -- had stagnated. The president of the United States, for the first time since Herbert Hoover, was snubbing its annual conventions. Critics called it irrelevant. And the organization's own president, Kweisi Mfume, was beset with internal controversies before resigning in November 2004 and later launching a Senate bid in Maryland.

Bruce S. Gordon, a retired Verizon executive, was named to head the venerable civil rights organization. Gordon, 59, was neither a politician nor a high-profile activist. He did not exactly sound like a firebrand, but he is proving an outspoken, energetic leader willing to take on controversial issues -- local and federal. He blasted California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for refusing to commute the death sentence of Stanley Tookie Williams, the ex-gang leader convicted of four murders, and vowed to campaign for a moratorium on the death penalty in every state that has capital punishment.

In an interview, Gordon discussed the reasons he has taken on the death penalty as a civil rights issue and detailed why the NAACP is campaigning against the appointment of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.

-- Evelyn Nieves

Q Why did you take on clemency for Stanley Williams as a cause?

AAfrican Americans represent 10 percent of the population and 42 percent of the population on death row. That to me illustrates the inequity of the system and the appropriateness of a need for a moratorium. I do not believe in the death penalty. But this position around the death penalty is not new to the NAACP. Until we can be convinced that there is no bias, until we can be convinced that there is a just and fair application of the death penalty, there needs to be a moratorium.

How do you plan to keep the issue of a moratorium public?

We are going to make our position and presence known in every state, every time a prisoner is set to be executed. We will call governors, we will lobby legislatures. I intend to mobilize the NAACP around this -- we feel strongly about it, and we're going to be stronger about keeping it front and center.

You've said you want to attract younger people to the NAACP. Do you consider that the death penalty and criminal justice issues, in general, resonate with young people?

I do believe that the criminal justice system and its inequities do resonate with young people. If you look at young men between the ages of 20 and 29, black men outnumber white men by a ratio of 7 to 1 in the prison system, so the criminal justice system continues to fail us. But I don't want to generalize about young people. Young people are as focused in their thinking as older people. Economic justice, entrepreneurship, the ability to have access to an education, job opportunities -- there are a number of issues that are important to them and it's up to the NAACP to align them with a national infrastructure of 2,000 branches.

That brings us to your broader agenda.

I start out with the belief that while much has been accomplished in the civil rights arena over the last 50 years -- if you use Rosa Parks as a point in time -- there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. No matter whether you look at the disparities in health care, educational performance, the access to higher education, economic equality, employment, criminal justice -- no matter what statistics you use, from employment to the poverty line, African Americans are on the bottom range. If you look at voter empowerment and voting rights, you still have individual states that still attempt to put into law onerous voter requirements that disproportionately disadvantage African Americans. So even in 2006, we still have voting rights issues. All those civil rights issues that were around 50 years ago, they're around today. . . . [Hurricane Katrina] brought the issue of a two-class system out. It brought the issue of people living below the poverty line front and center.

You said at the outset that you were going to try to establish a dialogue with President Bush. Any success?

I've had several meetings with the president. The first time in a one-on-one in September, and subsequently with eight members of my community. I found both meetings to be open, honest, direct discussions of the issues on hand, Katrina being the center of both discussions. I detected a willingness to listen to and even respond to the concerns we raised. I'm cautiously encouraged.

You've taken on the president's nominee to the Supreme Court, Samuel A. Alito Jr. What are your concerns about this candidate?

His record is one that has consistently opposed civil rights. . . . Alito's record as a judge shows that he is not open to affirmative action, he is not open to employees taking their employers to task for discrimination, he is not open to civil rights issues in general, the rights of the individuals against the powers that be -- he is just not open.

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