Symbols and Heroes

MILTON KENT

August 29, 1993|By MILTON KENT

The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. was nowhere near the Los Angeles nightclub where Rodney King allegedly wrecked his truck eight days ago while presumably drunk. But to some in Baltimore, Rev. Chavis might as well have poured a drink for Mr. King, placed him behind the wheel and put the keys in the truck's ignition.

Rev. Chavis, the executive director of the national NAACP, has taken a lot of heat -- usually from whites. He has been accused in this newspaper of "skirting the edges" on issues affecting the black community, while embracing Mr. King, who is "scum" to one local talk show host.

And what brought down the wrath of Baltimore upon the heads of these two black men? Nothing more than talk of symbols, linked to a perceived threat to the city's dream of football.

For many, but certainly not all whites, Mr. King -- the victim of a BTC well-chronicled beating by Los Angeles police in March 1991 who also had prior and subsequent scrapes with the law -- had already achieved "boogeyman" status.

Now comes Rev. Chavis, who, four days before Mr. King's recent arrest, had welcomed him to the NAACP's membership, calling him a "worldwide symbol of why we need to march."

Rev. Chavis was already guilty of disloyalty to Baltimore, which desperately wants one of two proposed National Football League expansion teams and had offered the NAACP tax benefits to move its national headquarters here. Those folks didn't take kindly to Rev. Chavis' deal for a pledge of front office jobs to qualified minorities with the Charlotte, N.C., group that is competing with Baltimore for a franchise.

In their pigskin hysteria, Rev. Chavis' critics forgot that he heads a national organization whose charge is to serve its membership, not lead cheers for Baltimore football. They also failed to chide the two Baltimore groups seeking the holy NFL grail for not taking the moral high ground by offering a similar or better deal to the NAACP.

To some, Rev. Chavis made Rodney King a role model, or even worse, a hero, which was probably surprising to Rev. Chavis, since he never referred to Mr. King as either.

Too often, blacks are at the short end of the American criminal justice system, and Mr. King's travails through it -- including the exoneration of four officers in a state court, the conviction of two of them in a federal civil rights trial and the relatively light sentence of 2 1/2 years they received from a judge who insinuated that Mr. King invited the beating -- are consistent with what many blacks experience.

Two former Detroit police officers, who are white, were convicted of second-degree murder this past week in the beating of a black man, in a case one called self-defense, just as in the Rodney King beating.

Even when the beatings aren't applied physically, they are inflicted psychologically. The WBAL talk show host who repeatedly called Rodney King "scum" said he presumes that any young black who drives a nice car has obtained it through drug profits, a slap to hard-working parents who purchase automobiles for their kids and to kids who work and save to buy their own set of wheels through legitimate means.

Black prosecutors tell stories of judges who ask them in court if they are defendants and are mystified by the umbrage these proud professionals take at the questions.

Black men who are reporters and editors here cite occasions where they've been hassled by police because the officers were looking for black men -- any black men.

One Baltimore Sun editor, with a scant resemblance to Dontay Carter, was followed by both police cars and a helicopter and was detained by Baltimore County officers during Carter's escape earlier this year, because they thought he looked like a convicted murderer. It's no wonder he says, "My spirit bends under the weight of being black in this country. It bends, but it doesn't break."

Rev. Chavis may have had persistence to task and dedication to self-renewal in mind when he conferred symbolic status on Mr. King, but apparently that wasn't good enough for Rev. Chavis' critics who say that he "skirts the edges" when he isn't publicly decrying all the ills that threaten portions of the black community.

Maybe Rev. Chavis is doing just that, away from public attention, by talking to inner-city youths or working behind the scenes with companies to attract jobs and businesses to the black community.

And perhaps, when he speaks of Rodney King, Ben Chavis is speaking symbolically of millions of people of all colors who try every day to make themselves better, sometimes stumbling in the effort, but asking only for the chance to keep trying until they get it right.

Milton Kent is a sportswriter for The Baltimore Sun.

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