Chavis pays tribute as Rodney King joins NAACP

August 18, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Rodney G. King has joined the NAACP and will "work in Los Angeles in the 'hood with us," the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. told a group of Baltimore ministers yesterday.

Dr. Chavis, who convened the ministers to promote an NAACP-sponsored 30th anniversary March on Washington, called Mr. King a "worldwide symbol of why we need to march."

Mr. King, who is black, was the victim of an infamous beating in 1991 by white Los Angeles police officers.

The executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said he met Mr. King, a former convict who led Los Angeles police on a chase before the beating, at a dinner in New York on Saturday and asked him to join the nation's oldest civil rights group.

Dr. Chavis said in an interview that Mr. King "has become TC symbol of fighting injustice, and Rodney King himself has gone through an evolution."

"As executive director of the NAACP, it's my responsibility to pay tribute to persons that emerge out of the community to exemplify freedom-seeking, justice-seeking behavior," he said.

Dr. Chavis, who was harshly criticized on Baltimore talk radio for having praised Mr. King, defended him as a "spokesperson for racial harmony" and said he was impressed by Mr. King's "absence of bitterness."

He added that Mr. King was "one of the main ones calling for calm in L.A." when riots broke out there in 1992 after four police officers were acquitted on most state assault charges stemming from the incident. Two officers were later convicted on federal civil rights charges.

"I'm not trying to back off. There's nothing wrong with the NAACP paying tribute to Rodney King," Dr. Chavis said. "I know that will get me in trouble. But it's more important for the public to see me being consistently honest than to say something politically expedient."

NAACP national board members said they did not expect Dr. Chavis' overture to Mr. King to be controversial within the civil rights group. They pointed out that membership is open to anyone who supports the group's goals.

"What Rodney King is doing is putting that incident behind him and looking forward to another life," said Hazel N. Dukes, president of the New York Off-Track Betting Corp. and a past president of the NAACP. "Isn't that part of the American way to rehabilitate people?"

Dr. Chavis invited the ministers to a luncheon at NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore to discuss the Aug. 28 March on Washington, at which he will be a keynote speaker.

The march, billed as "Passing the Torch for Jobs, Justice and Peace," commemorates the 1963 civil rights march, at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Dr. Chavis said the march would bring a "new civil rights agenda for the nation" to President Clinton's doorstep and would encourage young people to get involved in the civil rights movement.

"The March on Washington is therapeutic. It's good sometimes to step out and flex your muscles, exercise your vocal cords," he told the ministers. "But the greatest benefit will be after the march is over and we come back to our communities with renewed vigor, spirit and willingness to make things happen."

The Rev. William Calhoun, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said August is a difficult month in which to organize church members because many pastors are on vacation. But, he said, he expects a successful march.

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