Chavis to lead NAACP Activist jailed in '70s pledges to reach streets

April 10, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- The NAACP ushered in a new generation of leadership yesterday as its board of directors selected the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., 45, as the civil rights group's executive director.

Dr. Chavis, a veteran activist who spent 4 1/2 years in North Carolina prisons in the 1970s, was picked over two other finalists to succeed the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, who has run the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since 1977. The group is based in Baltimore.

The new executive director -- only the seventh in the association's 84-year history -- will head an NAACP that is struggling to define its mission, bolster its membership and fortify its finances.

Dr. Chavis said the board's Good Friday selection "reflects the spirit of this high holy day in the Christian calendar. It symbolizes the beginning of renewal and revitalization of the NAACP."

While being careful to honor the NAACP's past glories, Dr. Chavis hinted that he would make the group more visible on the nation's meanest streets. Although his official starting date has not been set, he plans to visit the south-central neighborhoods of Los Angeles next week.

"I am not a stranger in the 'hood," he said. "I know those brothers and sisters."

The battle for the NAACP job was at times bitter. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the most prominent civil rights voice in the United States, sought the post but withdrew this week when it was clear he didn't have enough votes on the 64-member board.

Jackson supporters charged that the NAACP board was too power-hungry to hire as strong a personality as Mr. Jackson. Some board members lashed back, accusing Mr. Jackson of smearing the NAACP to try to save face in defeat.

In a parting swipe, three board members said yesterday that the two-time presidential hopeful had been headed for defeat because of "grave concern over [his] administrative ability and temperamental compatibility . . . with the NAACP."

"Mr. Jackson is a free-lance operator," said T. H. Poole Sr., a Florida board member. "His style is unstructured. We are a structured, policy-making organization."

Dr. Chavis and William F. Gibson, chairman of the board, appealed for unity inside and outside the NAACP.

"We will make the NAACP a vibrant organization for all our people, from African-American professionals on Wall Street to despairing and alienated masses in our inner cities," Dr. Chavis vowed at a news conference.

Dr. Chavis, who has been executive director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice since 1985, pledged to bring "the best and brightest minds to the NAACP."

He said he expected to move to Baltimore soon with his wife, Martha. They have six children. His executive director's salary has yet to be fixed.

A native of Oxford, N.C., Dr. Chavis first gained national attention in 1972 when he and others were charged in the firebombing of a Wilmington, N.C., grocery.

The Wilmington Ten, as the group became known, were found guilty and imprisoned. They became a cause celebre and were the first Americans deemed "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International.

In 1980, a federal appeals court threw out the convictions after determining that evidence against the group had been falsified.

In recent years, Dr. Chavis has led a crusade against what he has termed "environmental racism." He charges that toxic waste dumps and other sources of pollution are often located in poor, black communities, creating serious health hazards.

The Rev. Edwin R. Edmonds, a New Haven, Conn., minister who has known Dr. Chavis since the 1960s, described him as a "negotiator" who is "intensely committed to peace and justice."

"He disagrees, but not disagreeably," Dr. Edmonds said. "He listens, and he is aggressive on issues, but not on persons. He is an achiever of consensus."

Dr. Chavis will need all his political skills to handle the unwieldy NAACP board, which is predominantly male, gray-haired and Southern.

In eight years as board chairman, Dr. Gibson, 61, a Greenville, S.C., dentist, has steadily expanded his power. Now the board is studying constitutional changes to limit the executive director's powers. A vote on that could come as early as July.

The board's decision yesterday came almost 14 months after Mr. Hooks announced that he would retire. When the board was slow to pick a successor, Mr. Hooks, who owns houses in Memphis and Detroit and maintains an apartment in Northwest Baltimore, agreed to stay on until the end of this month.

When Mr. Jackson dropped out of the race, the board was left with three lesser-known choices: Dr. Chavis, who is based in Cleveland; Jewell Jackson McCabe, 47, founder of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in New York; and Earl T. Shinhoster, 42, director of the NAACP's Southeast region in Atlanta.

Board sources said that Mr. Shinhoster finished second in the voting of the 59 members present and that Ms. McCabe -- who told the board, "If my gender is not a problem, you don't have to look any further" -- a distant third.

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