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A Defiant Voice : Carl Rowan has been accused of trying to destroy the NAACP. But the columnist says he is only after change.

November 22, 1994|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — If you've ever heard that soothing voice or read those scholarly sentences, you'd know it's him. Syndicated columnist Carl Rowan has a signature style.

That jowly baby face and genial manner have been fixtures among the talking heads on PBS' "Inside Washington" since 1965. His voice can be heard on 25 major-market radio stations broadcasting "The Rowan Reports," a daily radio commentary. He has written seven books, some of them bestsellers.

But lately, Rowan, an elegant and polished black man of 69 years who writes and speaks in the terse and precise prose common among the well-educated of his generation, has become something of an attack journalist on a self-appointed mission to bring down the current leadership of the NAACP.

His bitterly critical columns, distributed by the King Features Syndicate and published in 100 newspapers across the land, are the major reason the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People is facing its greatest crisis. NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis was forced to resign late in the summer amid allegations--first raised by Rowan--that he used the organization's money to settle a sexual discrimination suit brought by a former employee, opening the organization's financial practices to unprecedented public scrutiny.

Rowan's current target is NAACP Board Chairman William Gibson, who had been Chavis' most ardent supporter. By repeatedly demanding that Gibson resign, Rowan has set himself apart from most mainstream reporters--black or white--who tend to steer clear of pointed and determined criticism of the NAACP. But Rowan relishes the combat of writing to incite change--regardless, he said, of whether his targets are white-led government institutions, such as the FBI under former director J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s, or the current NAACP leadership.

During a wide-ranging interview conducted recently in the living room of his rambling northwest Washington home, Rowan defended his hard-edged columns. He called them "a service," written with the intention of educating the public and instigating reforms within an organization he views as necessary to the interests of African Americans.

Rowan rejected the argument that he is bent on destroying the NAACP. In fact, he says, the organization absolutely has a role in the post-civil rights generation. "Take this (recent mid-term) election. The NAACP in a good and normal time would have been out there for weeks trying to get blacks out to vote," he said. "They have been virtually paralyzed by all their money troubles and could only do a little trifling stuff."

Once Gibson is out of office, Rowan said, and a new management team is in place, he will use his column to urge supporters to send money back into the NAACP.

"There is a group preparing for the moment when (Gibson) steps down so they can say to the nation, as I will say, 'The time has come to rush to the rescue to the support of this organization because the United States would be a lesser place without an NAACP,' " Rowan said. "But no way will I ask anybody to give a nickel as long as (Gibson) is there at the head of the NAACP because I know the extent to which the meager funds of the NAACP have been abused."

Rowan also brushed aside suggestions he was an "Uncle Tom" or tool of the mainstream media, noting his 43 years as a Life Member of the NAACP. Among the highlights: Rowan "worked closely with (then NAACP attorney) Thurgood Marshall in the days way before Brown versus Board of Education."

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For much of his life, Rowan has been defiantly confronting conventions of the day. He was one of the nation's first blacks to be a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, which enabled him to graduate from Oberlin College and to earn a master's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill.

He worked briefly at the Baltimore Afro-American, a black-owned newspaper, but left to become a copy editor at the Minneapolis Tribune and one of the few blacks working within the white press in the late 1940s. His reporting on race relations in the segregated South during the 1950s brought him fame and recognition, as well as close associations with such civil rights leaders as former NAACP General Secretary Roy Wilkins, Urban League President Whitney Young and Marshall.

In 1961, seeking to integrate the all-white diplomatic corps, President John F. Kennedy appointed Rowan to be deputy secretary of state. Later, Kennedy tapped him as a U.N. delegate during the Cuban missile crisis and ambassador to Finland.

During the Lyndon Johnson Administration, Rowan sat in on Cabinet and National Security Council meetings as director of the United States Information Agency. In that capacity, Rowan was privy to secret FBI documents on the activities of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., an issue that some within the NAACP have pointed to as proof of Rowan's cozy ties to Hoover and his passion for attacking the civil rights leadership.

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