WASHINGTON — Bruce S. Gordon, a longtime business executive who took the helm of the NAACP less than two years ago, surprised followers of the civil rights organization Sunday night by announcing his resignation as president and chief executive.
Reached by telephone at his Manhattan home Sunday night, Gordon, 61, said he stepped down because he was at odds with the organization's board about his role as chief executive. He also said he faced resistance to his aim to shift some of the organization's focus from political advocacy to social service.
"I did not step into the role to be a caretaker, to be dictated to," Gordon said. "I stepped into the role to understand as best I could the needs of the African American community and then to propose strategies and policies and programs and practices that could improve conditions for African Americans.... The things I had in mind were not consistent with what some -- unfortunately, too many -- on the board had in mind."
Gordon added that he does not believe it is enough for the NAACP "simply to push the government ... to institute policies that matter. I think it's also important for us to step out into our communities and ... deliver services."
"To be totally reliant on what the government does for us, instead of also doing for ourselves what we have the capacity to do for ourselves, is, to me, too narrow a focus," he said.
Gordon said he informed the executive committee of the NAACP board two weeks ago of his plans, but that talks were initiated to work out a way for him to stay. Once he became convinced those talks wouldn't succeed, Gordon said, he decided to step down.
NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond said late Sunday that he and Gordon had known for some time that "it was a bad fit."
Bond declined to elaborate other than to say that he was "sorry he has left us. I was supportive when he was hired, and he had many qualities that we need."
One official of the organization, who requested anonymity, acknowledged that there were several vigorous discussions about the role of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and whether it should continue to fight racial discrimination as its primary purpose or push more aggressively into social service projects such as tutoring, mentoring and pregnancy counseling.
In addition, the source said, Gordon received attention for meetings with top White House officials. The board supported that outreach, but some members were frustrated that Gordon had not brought other members of the organization with him.
Bond said the NAACP, which is based in Baltimore, would immediately search for a successor who could ensure that "our mission of social justice advocacy strengthens and grows" approaching the organization's 100th anniversary in 2009. He said the search would include candidates from the nonprofit, corporate and civil rights communities.
Bond said he had named NAACP general counsel Dennis Hayes as interim president.
An official who asked not to be identified said that Hayes, who also filled in after Kweisi Mfume resigned the presidency in 2004 after nine years, was regarded as the logical choice and was widely viewed as having no aspirations for a permanent leadership role.
Gordon is expected to officially leave this month. He succeeded Mfume in August 2005, shortly after winning unanimous approval by the 64-member board.
Gordon spent 35 years at Verizon and Bell of Pennsylvania, beginning as a management trainee and finishing as president of retail markets. In 2002, Fortune magazine ranked him the sixth most powerful black executive in America.
Founded by a multiracial group of activists, the 500,000-member NAACP has long served as the nation's leading civil rights organization, monitoring equal opportunity laws and conducting voter mobilization drives. The last business figure to serve as leader of the NAACP was Walter White, an Atlanta insurance executive, from 1931 to 1955.
Hamburger reported from Washington and Silverstein from Los Angeles.