Margaret Bush Wilson, chairman of the board of the NAACP, has suspended executive director Benjamin L. Hooks, following a bitter showdown last week that climaxed a long-simmering feud over administration, credibility, direction and control of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.
The abrupt and unilateral suspension of Hooks, 58, a Baptist minister from Memphis who has held the $75,000-a-year position since 1976, was announced yesterday by the organization's national headquarters in Brooklyn.
A spokesman for the organization said that the action--in which Hooks is relieved of his duties with pay--was taken Wednesday. She declined to give further details.
"It's a very delicate situation and the board is going to handle it," said the spokesman, Lillian Ayala.
NAACP general counsel Thomas I. Atkins was named acting executive director. In a memorandum read to workers at the organization's headquarters, Atkins said that all employes should follow the directives of the board and its chairman.
"I am well aware of the dedication and commitment this staff has to the work and interests of the association," he said. "I will count on that knowledge to help get us through the next several difficult days."
Several board members were trying last night to call a special board meeting on May 28, probably in New York.
The suspension surprised many ranking board members, some of whom had not attended all of the meeting last Saturday in Chicago.
At that meeting, sources said, Hooks at one point began shouting at Wilson and had to escorted from the room by two aides.
"I heard something about it," Kelly M. Alexander Sr., national vice chairman and head of the North Carolina NAACP, said when asked about Hooks' suspension. "But the national board of directors of the NAACP has not met yet and the board of directors are the ones who have the authority to do that. When the board meets, it's going to deal with whatever's going around."
The Rev. Edward A. Hailes, president of the District of Columbia NAACP and one of six national vice presidents, said, "I can't understand this drastic action. I'm a vice president of this organization and I want to know what's going on. It's poor judgment to take that kind of action."
Wilson, a St. Louis real estate lawyer, was said to be out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment, according to her office there. Atkins did not return several telephone calls.
Hooks told the Associated Press in a phone interview from his office, "I can say this--I'm functioning."
Hooks, who served on the Federal Communications Commission before replacing Roy Wilkins as executive director of the NAACP, has had continually strained relations with Wilson, in large part due to longstanding differences over who should control the organization, several sources said yesterday.
She has consistently asserted that the 64-member board, which she has headed since 1975, must set policy for the organization and that the staff should carry out its directives--something that was not always the case under Wilkins, a pillar in the civil rights movement who ran the organization for 21 years.
According to one well-placed source, the seeds of the suspension were sown last month in Jackson. Wilson presented the board, meeting as a committee of the whole, with a statement contending that the organization was being poorly run, was not serving the needs of its 125,000 members, was in bad repute among philanthropic groups for alleged inefficient management and was poorly directed.
She then proposed a "crash plan/program" to "get a handle on the adminstrative and operational issues of the association" with a view to hiring an administrator to be "responsible for the day-to-day operations of the association," apparently a deputy exeuctive director.
A committee of nine board members was established to follow up on her assertions. When that discussion began at the end of last Saturday's meeting of the board's executive committee in Chicago, sources said, Hooks began shouting at Wilson and had to be removed from the room.
"He blew up," one source said. Hooks was being suspended, the source said, because "it is felt that he challenged the authority of the chairman of the board and the executive committee . . . publicly in a formal meeting in front of the board members and the staff."