According to NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, executives at some major hotel chains all but laughed three years ago when the civil rights group announced that it would begin issuing report cards on their hiring, contracting and corporate gift-giving policies with regard to African Americans.

And who could blame the hotel executives for not taking the NAACP seriously?

At the time, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group was still emerging from a near-fatal leadership crisis that had left it deep in debt, its organizational structure crippled and its agenda in tatters.

Even the group's threat to boycott those hotels that failed was unconvincing.

Fewer than half of the 14 hotel chains initially surveyed even bothered to respond.

"They thought we were engaging in some genuflecting to remind ourselves of who we are," Mfume said.

What a difference three years make. When the NAACP announced the results of its third annual economic reciprocity survey this week, corporate representatives awaited the results anxiously.

Many of the companies have made significant efforts to improve their minority hiring and contracting, in part to improve their grades on the report card. "We take this quite seriously," said Mearl Purvis, a vice president for Promus Hotels.

Nor are business executives the only ones taking the NAACP seriously once again. The organization has used its 90th annual convention, which concluded here tonight, to showcase a broad range of new initiatives that are winning the old civil rights group new respect.

The NAACP announced this week that it is teaming with gun control advocates to file a federal lawsuit claiming that the gun industry recklessly distributes its products. But rather than seeking damages, the group is asking the courts to impose the kinds of strict gun controls that Congress and many state legislatures have rejected.

The group also criticized the nation's four major networks--CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox--for having no black stars in the 26 new prime-time shows in the fall television lineup. Network executives quickly responded to the criticism, which came with a threat of a boycott, litigation or both, by tallying up the number of black roles in existing shows and requesting meetings with NAACP leaders.

Today, Vice President Gore appeared at the convention to applaud the NAACP's efforts to ensure that black "role models" remain on network television and praise the planned gun suit. Gore also touted his proposal to require states to issue photo identification cards for anybody who wants to buy a handgun and, without mentioning GOP presidential campaign front-runner George W. Bush by name, continued his week-long assault on the Texas governor's gun record, saying "some are [for] concealed weapons, but they can't conceal the fact that they are doing the bidding of the NRA." (As governor, Bush signed "conceal and carry" gun legislation in Texas and a measure limiting civil liability for gun manufacturers.)

The new NAACP initiatives rely heavily on time-tested tools the group has used throughout its history: threats, protests, legal action, and corporate and government partnerships. But now, NAACP leaders say, they are beginning to retool those weapons for the contemporary civil rights struggle, whose targets are more scattered and far less obvious than they were in the past.

"We marched and picketed and protested against state-sanctioned segregation and brought that system crashing to its knees," said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. "Today's times require no less, and in fact, insist on more."

Indeed, the convention's broad agenda reflected the myriad challenges confronting African American communities and the NAACP. Freddie Mac, the congressionally chartered mortgage bank, announced an alliance with the NAACP aimed at increasing home ownership rates among blacks, which are far below the national average. The group announced a partnership with Black Entertainment Television to push NAACP memberships and devote air time to issues concerning the group. And AT&T announced plans to help establish technology labs at NAACP facilities in several cities, in an effort aimed at bringing more African Americans in closer contact with computer technology.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright addressed the convention and answered criticism that the United States does more to back Europe than Africa by promising greater U.S. effort to support peace in the Sudan and other war-torn African countries. She also told the NAACP that the government is committed to doing more to curb the spread of AIDS in Africa.

"The United States has helped by . . . steering to Africa more than one half of the billion dollars we have invested in the global fight against AIDS," Albright said. "But so much more needs to be done."

The group also heard from civil rights veterans Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton and from Gore's challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bill Bradley.

Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist who attended the conference, said he was impressed with the range of the NAACP's work but said the group's efforts are far from sufficient to address the core economic, educational and other problems affecting African American communities.

"They seem to be fashioning an agenda for the future and demonstrating their renewed clout," Walters said. "They are much better in terms of focus and infrastructure. In short, they have returned to normalcy. But we need more than that."

CAPTION: NAACP President Kweisi Mfume announced plans to take on the gun industry in his keynote convention speech in New York this week.

CAPTION: Mfume and Jesse L. Jackson chat before Jackson's Wednesday convention speech.