Ben Chavis Take on The NAACP


April 14, 1993|By CARL ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, the new executive director of the NAACP, appears to be a good choice to lead the nation's oldest civil rights organization out of an almost-moribund status of poverty, internal bickering and virtual irrelevancy.

But as he begins his efforts to make the NAACP a force ''impacting the White House, impacting the Congress, impacting the Supreme Court,'' he and we would do well to look at what went wrong with the NAACP.

Let's first acknowledge that the NAACP which Mr. Chavis takes over is a far cry from the organization that racists in the Congress cursed and politicians in the Jim Crow states tried to put out of business in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. ''I'm gonna sic the NAACP on you'' is no longer a meaningful threat.

The NAACP was pitiably inept during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and it is almost invisible in current joustings over economic programs of the Clinton administration that are so vital to the well-being of America's minorities.

Let me say quickly that the declining power of this 84-year-old organization cannot be blamed in any large measure on the 16-year tenure of Benjamin Hooks, the retiring executive director. Remember that:

* For most of Mr. Hooks' tenure the nation was led by presidents who were hostile toward the civil rights movement in general and the NAACP in particular.

Ronald Reagan went eight years refusing to talk to Mr. Hooks and other civil rights leaders. Mr. Chavis will have the advantage of a friendly Clinton administration.

* Mr. Hooks spent the last decade in warfare with segments of the board of directors. In 1983, board chairman Margaret Bush Wilson ''suspended'' Mr. Hooks, arguing that the board ''should have a representative to be in charge of the NAACP between meetings of the board.''

She lost that war, but the current chairman, Dr. William E. Gibson, spared no effort to make it clear that he, not Mr. Hooks, had the last word on policy and priorities.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson withdrew from consideration as a successor to Mr. Hooks, explaining in a long letter to Dr. Gibson that he deplored moves to ''strengthen the board chairman, and significantly weaken the executive director.''

It is noteworthy, if not ominous, that at the press conference announcing his selection, Mr. Chavis waited for Dr. Gibson to whisper approval before saying that he would still attend a summit for gang members in Kansas City later this month.

When Mr. Chavis appeared on the Today show Monday, Dr. Gibson was at his side. Was this supposed to show ''solidarity,'' or make it clear that Dr. Gibson has and will continue to have the last word on NAACP policy?

* These years of what Mr. Jackson called ''fratricidal political battle'' have diminished black support and intensified the financial woes of the NAACP.

It was $1 million in debt when Mr. Hooks took over. It had a $650,000 deficit last year. In the angry days of 1983, Mrs. Wilson said, ''If 250,000 members are realized in 1983 we will, still, be far below the touted public relations membership figure of 450,000.'' The current ''public relations'' membership figure is 500,000.

Mr. Chavis will be challenged to get real dollar support from 31.7 million black Americans who have never given the NAACP the support it has deserved.

* During Ben Hooks' tenure not only was this nation polarized racially and ethnically, but black America became splintered, bereft of a common goal. Integrationists, separatists, accommodationists and nondescript hustlers have engaged in self-serving fratricidal warfare.

So it is clear that Benjamin Franklin Chavis Jr., has taken on a colossal load. The NAACP board ought to give him maximum authority and independence in running the organization.

Dr. Gibson cannot practice dentistry in South Carolina and at the same time run the day-to-day business of an organization that, to be relevant, has to move swiftly to influence hour-to-hour developments at the White House, in the Congress and around the world.

Individual NAACP board members ought to bug out, to cease and desist from personal diatribes about NAACP affairs and let Dr. Chavis do the talking.

This is the only way we can ever again have an NAACP that the bigots truly hate and fear.

Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.