THE recent leadership turmoil at the NAACP is dismaying precisely because of the awesome tradition of the organization and because of its potential, too. The great W. E. B. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement in 1905. It was dedicated to "the abolition of all caste distinctions based simply on race and color . . . recognition of the principle of human brotherhood as a practical present creed . . . (and) united effort to realize these ideals under wise and courageous leadership." The organization was all-black, poorly financed and widely considered "radical."

In the summer of 1908, there was an outbreak of virulent racism in Springfield, Ill. A white mob, reported to include many of the city's "best" citizens, went on a two-day rampage, killing and injuring scores of blacks and causing thousands more to flee the Great Emancipator's home town. One writer, a white southerner named William English Walling, called it a race war, and asked "what large and powerful body of citizens is ready" to aid the cause of "absolute political and social equality?" Shocked white liberals banded together to rekindle the abolitionists' torch. In 1910, they joined forces with the Niagara Movement, and incorporated as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

There followed decades of slow, difficult effort to change the laws and conscience of America, notwithstanding lynchings, bombings, court and legislative battles, and more--ample testing of "wise and courageous leadership."

What has happened to that tradition of leadership? There appears to be a truce in the battle at the NAACP. Chairman Margaret Bush Wilson, faced with intense criticism by some members of the board, has rescinded her summary suspension of executive director Benjamin Hooks. But the officers and board surely know that while the tourniquet will help, much more should be done to heal the wounds. The disputes over management, policy and style, which contributed to the recent crisis, cannot be left to fester. The NAACP board of directors as a whole should take strong action to put this vital organization on track. The board acts in trust not only for the NAACP membership, and not only for blacks, but also for an entire nation still awaiting fulfillment of the Du Bois ideals.