Friend to poor and rich takes helm at NAACP

CHAVIS: MAN OF OPEN SPIRIT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS ROLE

April 11, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- When Reginald F. Lewis, the richest black man i the United States, was buried in West Baltimore 10 weeks ago, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. was there to deliver the eulogy.

Mr. Lewis was a super-rich tycoon and philanthropist who

cruised the streets of Manhattan in a midnight-blue Bentley, puffed Havana cigars and toasted his worldly success with the very finest French champagne.

Dr. Chavis was a preacher who sprouted an Afro and a social conscience in the '60s, did prison time for it in the '70s and apparently forgot none of it in the '90s, when he has talked about racism, genocide, peace and justice as if his ideological tape had been rewound.

They might have seemed an odd couple. But when Mr. Lewis died, Dr. Chavis, his soul mate of two decades and spiritual adviser at the end, was the family's obvious choice to eulogize him.

Now Dr. Chavis, named Friday as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is returning to Baltimore for a longer stay. The careers of his predecessors at the nation's most venerable civil rights organization have been counted not in years, but in decades.

The 45-year-old civil rights veteran, mild-mannered and serious, soon will move to Baltimore from Cleveland, where he heads the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice. He will set up shop at the NAACP's national headquarters in Northwest Baltimore's Seton Business Park.

To Ben Chavis and those who know him, his friendship with Reggie Lewis was no more surprising than his meetings with Los Angeles gang members or his cordial relations with the predominantly white membership of the United Church of Christ, his longtime employer.

"I'm a consensus builder, and in order to build consensus one has to have the capacity to have diverse relationships," Dr. Chavis said yesterday in an interview here.

Some of those relationships could make Dr. Chavis' job at the NAACP much easier. A member of the Clinton-Gore transition team, he has met with President Clinton three times already on various issues.

He paused during yesterday's interview to take a congratulatory phone call from Vice President Al Gore. They have worked together in the past to draft environmental legislation.

"Hearing from you means a lot to me, Al," Dr. Chavis told Mr. Gore.

Friends in the highest places do mean a lot to the NAACP. The outgoing executive director, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, stood his watch almost entirely during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, a time of sometimes open hostility to civil rights groups.

"We have to regain some of the ground lost during the Reagan-Bush era," Dr. Chavis says. "The fact that I have access to the White House, as you have just witnessed, enhances the capacity of the NAACP to achieve its mission."

Dr. Chavis' short-term plans include lobbying for President Clinton's economic stimulus package, especially summer jobs for inner-city youth, and for health care reform. He will be in Washington tomorrow.

A longer-range goal is to make the NAACP a think tank that could "maintain the struggle on an intellectual level as well as a street level." He wants to help shape the public policy debate rather than just react to it.

"Ben is someone who is unawed by success, unseduced by flattery and undismayed by disaster. He's a clear thinker with a sense of purpose," says Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. "I think he's the right person for the right job at the right time in the history of the organization."

The native of Oxford, N.C., comes naturally to his new role as head of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group.

His family's activism dates to John Chavis, an 18th century forebear who was born into slavery in North Carolina, won his freedom through education and became the first African-American ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

Dr. Chavis grew up listening to family stories of how whites beat John Chavis to death for setting up an underground school to teach rural blacks, which was illegal.

His sister, an English professor, leads an annual expedition to look for John Chavis' grave and thinks she may have found it on a nearby plantation.

When Ben Chavis was 12, his father, an Episcopal lay minister, enrolled his sister and him as NAACP members.

"We had a ceremony at the house to pass out the membership cards. It was like a badge of honor," Dr. Chavis says.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Chavis, then a college chemistry major, was an organizer with various civil rights groups.

A Wilmington, N.C., school desegregation fight led to his conviction and imprisonment, along with nine others, in the firebombing of a white-owned grocery. As leader of the "Wilmington 10," deemed political prisoners by Amnesty International, he gained widespread attention. That was also when he met Mr. Lewis, who was one of his lawyers.

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