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NAACP tries to revive once-weighty magazine

By Larry Bivins, Detroit News, Friday 13 April 1997

WASHINGTON -- More than a year after NAACP national chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams fired the 10-member board of the Crisis magazine, a new team is trying to revive the publication by the time the organization holds its annual convention in July.

The hiatus of Crisis underscores the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP's) attempts to redefine its mission as the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization under the leadership of Evers-Williams and Kweisi fume, the new president and chief executive officer.

Founded in 1910 by the renowned scholar W.E.B. DuBois, Crisis for many decades was the premier forum for black intellectual thought. It was a staple in black households, particularly the black middle class. In more recent years, critics say, the magazine's stellar reputation declined.

"It lost its importance because it wasn't really saying too much," says Arthur Johnson, former president of the Detroit NAACP branch. "That's one more significant loss in the struggle" for civil rights.

Indeed, many of the 300,000 NAACP members who received Crisis had long stopped reading it, NAACP officials say. And its covers attracted few non-members. (Copies of the last issue from March 1996 sat on a Washington book store shelf more than a year later.)

Evers-Williams declined to discuss what prompted her to dismiss the Crisis board on Feb. 14, 1996.

"I want to keep the focus on the new Crisis," she says.

One former Crisis board member, who spoke only on the condition of remaining anonymous, says the dismissals were a power play by Evers-Williams to wrest control of the magazine that had begun to turn a profit. (Although The Crisis is a separate, for-profit corporation, its stock is owned by the NAACP.)

"Part of the problem is Crisis was taking in so much money, and the NAACP was losing so much money," the board member says, referring to the organization's own debt -- now retired -- of more than $3 million.

Rupert Richardson, a former Crisis board member who also serves on the national NAACP board, calls Evers-Williams' actions "unorthodox."

"We were under the impression that we had served fairly well," Richardson says.

Nevertheless, NAACP board member Joe Madison, a Washington-area radio talk-show host and former executive director of the Detroit NAACP branch, and others say the magazine lacked focus and was in dire need of a make-over.

"It wasn't reflective of the intellectual thinking in the African-American community," Madison says. "It was embarrassing."

Herb Boyd, a native Detroiter who has taught black studies courses at Wayne State University and now teaches at the College of New Rochelle in New York, says in recent years Crisis "didn't have any spunk, any spark."

"The DuBois tradition was always the one I fancied," adds Boyd.

Highlighted by the scholarly discourses of DuBois, Crisis was the NAACP's strident voice against segregation and lynchings in the South.

DuBois also used Crisis, where many of his essays on race first appeared, as a forum for his famous debates with Booker T. Washington. He promoted his emphasis on academic education and his theory of the "talented tenth," a cadre of black intellectuals whose obligation it was to uplift the black masses. In contrast, Washington urged blacks to avoid politics and concentrate on advancing themselves economically through vocational, instead of academic education. Poems by Langston Hughes and literary and cultural critiques also were mainstays.

"There probably is not a black publication in American history that has had more of an impact on African-American life and culture than the Crisis," notes William Banks, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life.

DuBois edited Crisis until 1934, when the late Roy Wilkins, who later became the NAACP's executive director, took over. Later, it became more of a banal news magazine than a spark plug for black intellectual dialogue. It also became more of a cheerleader for the activities of NAACP leaders.

Some critics say the Crisis had become a poor imitation of such popular magazines as Ebony and Emerge.

"Indeed, W.E.B. DuBois probably would be astounded and disconcerted at the present format and content of his brainchild," former NAACP chairwoman Margaret Bush Wilson wrote in a May 1996 letter in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

When Evers-Williams fired the Crisis board, she selected national NAACP board member Julian Bond as chairman of the new panel and the magazine's publisher. She tapped noted journalist and George Mason University history professor Roger Wilkins, nephew of Roy Wilkins, as associate publisher.

Bond says the new board has spent the past year rethinking what kind of magazine Crisis should be. The group hired design and advertising consultants to help reshape it.

One of the questions the board had to grapple with, Bond says, was how to strike a balance between being an NAACP in-house publication and a magazine that would be attractive to nonmembers.

The consensus, Bond says, was the magazine would concentrate on analysis and opinion while devoting just a third of its space to NAACP news.

"It promises to be a dynamic, serious, analytical examination of race, as no other publication regularly deals with this subject," Bond says. Paul Ruffins, recently hired as the magazine's new editor, says he intends to open the pages of Crisis to opposing viewpoints among blacks.

"I want to create a situation in which people think of Crisis as a place where all black intellectuals can come and debate," says Ruffins, formerly a contributor to Black Issues in Higher Education magazine. "I will be engaging the black conservatives and inviting them to hash out ideas in the pages of Crisis. And I'm interested in attracting a younger audience."

Crisis could be a valuable outlet for black scholars and writers who want to be heard but are shunned by the mainstream magazines and journals, observers say.

"If Crisis is able to bring those voices to its pages," Detroit's Arthur Johnson says, "it will be regarded today as it once was -- a magazine that speaks faithfully, courageously and directly to the great issues that affect us as African Americans."

What went wrong?

It lost its importance because it wasn't really saying too much. That's one more significant loss in the struggle for civil rights (Arthur Johnson, Former president of the Detroit NAACP branch).