Chavis to be in spotlight at NAACP's convention Group's renewed vigor attributed to him

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

Rebounding from his first embarrassment as NAACP executive director, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. will try to put his stamp on the nation's oldest civil rights organization in Indianapolis this weekend at the group's annual convention.

Since taking over the helm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People three months ago from the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, Dr. Chavis, 45, has injected renewed vigor into an 84-year-old group sometimes criticized as ineffectual.

Moving quickly to establish his leadership, Dr. Chavis stumbled into his first gaffe last week. His support for a National Football League franchise in Charlotte, N.C., turned into a public relations nightmare in Baltimore, which has been the NAACP headquarters since 1986 and is competing with Charlotte for a team. Caught off guard, the NAACP apparatus took a full week to crank out an apology and calm the uproar.

But many NAACP members have been inspired by how their new leader awaited the second Rodney King verdict with a family in a Los Angeles public housing project, organized a youth gang summit, traveled to Africa to meet with the world's black leaders, backed gay rights and denounced President Clinton for dumping Lani Guinier as nominee for the government's top civil rights job.

For most of the 3,000 delegates expected in Indianapolis, the convention is the first chance to get close to Dr. Chavis and to assess the new generation of leadership he promises.

"This could be the largest convention in 10 or 15 years, and he's the catalyst," said Kelly M. Alexander Jr., president of the North Carolina NAACP. "People are walking in off the streets wanting to get back into the organization. The trend of membership is up. I really think the excitement is there."

Ross Perot drew catcalls at last year's convention when he repeatedly referred to blacks as "you people." Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, was the focus of debate in 1991. This year's speakers include South African leader Nelson Mandela, Vice President Al Gore and Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the Congressional Black Caucus.

But Ben Chavis will occupy center stage.

"The main business of the convention has to be the relationship between the new executive director and the [Clinton] administration," said Ronald Walters, a Howard University political scientist. "What is the NAACP going to fight for? This is the first opportunity for Chavis to come in with his own agenda."

Dr. Chavis, a civil rights veteran who spent four years in North Carolina prisons on a 1972 firebombing conviction that later was overturned, has already given hints of the kind of NAACP he wants to build.

It would be internationalist and Pan-African, as symbolized by Mr. Mandela's keynote address today. It would be younger and more active, as signaled by Dr. Chavis' vow to double membership to 1 million. And it would be better financed, as indicated by his promise to announce a new endowment at the convention.

The NAACP's recent $1 billion "fair-share" agreements with Flagstar Cos., Inc., which owns the Denny's restaurant chain beset by allegations of racial discrimination, and Richardson Sports, which seeks a football franchise for Charlotte, show that Dr. Chavis is willing to wheel and deal.

But corporate sponsorship is a double-edged sword that can emasculate a civil rights organization even as it enriches it, warns Roger Wilkins, a George Mason University history

professor whose uncle, Roy Wilkins, was NAACP executive director during the heyday of the civil rights movement.

"It smacked too much of quid pro quo," Mr. Wilkins said of the deal with Flagstar and the NFL franchise bid. "From the outside it looks like they gave up too much for what they got, and it diminishes their integrity."

"The NAACP needs more focus," Mr. Wilkins added. "I'm a little disappointed to hear [Dr. Chavis] say the NAACP will do all this for Africa. There are organizations that do for Africa; the NAACP does for America. There are plenty of wounded black people in America to worry about. Jobs and education, that's what our people need."

Dr. Chavis won the executive director's job after a bruising battle with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who quit the race when he didn't have enough votes on the 64-member board to win. Part of Dr. Chavis' job at the convention will be to heal the wounds from that fight.

Hazel N. Dukes, a board member who backed Mr. Jackson, said the healing has begun. "It was a democratic process," she said. "For those of us who voted out of conscience, we know how to win and we know how to lose."

If Dr. Chavis impresses the convention, it will allow him to lengthen his tether from Dr. William F. Gibson, the NAACP's chairman of the board. Dr. Gibson, a South Carolina dentist, has often appeared at Dr. Chavis' side the past three months.

"Two-headed management" makes the NAACP clumsy and slow to react, says Dr. Walters, offering the football fiasco as a case in point.

"If I were the board, I would want to call [Dr. Gibson] to task also. It was not just Ben Chavis' mistake. Ben Chavis is the new kid on the block," he said.

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