A Likely Story

GREGORY P. KANE

September 10, 1993|By GREGORY P. KANE

"Where,'' Reginald Denny might be asking himself, ''is my invitation to join the NAACP?''

If he is, it's a darned good question, one that NAACP executive director Ben Chavis might consider answering by extending the same invitation to Reginald Denny to join the NAACP that Chavis extended to Rodney King.

Mr. Denny, for those of you who've just beamed in from a distant planet, is the unfortunate white truck driver who had the misfortune to be at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues on April 29, 1992, the day the Los Angeles riots began. He was severely beaten by a mob of thugs, four of whom are now standing trial for the assault.

Mr. King is the hapless parolee who was clubbed into submission by Los Angeles police on April 3, 1991, after leading police on a high-speed chase in which he was driving while quite drunk.

Mr. Chavis, in justifying his decision to ask Mr. King to join the NAACP, said that Mr. King had shown ''justice-seeking behavior'' and that he lacked bitterness about the beating. Mr. King could be a symbol of racial harmony, Mr. Chavis reasoned.

Mr. King was apparently so overjoyed by the gesture that he went out and got arrested again for alleged drunk driving a few days after Mr. Chavis made his controversial remarks. The public-relations damage done to the NAACP cannot be measured. But there's a way to repair it.

Extend an invitation to Reginald Denny to join the NAACP. He cannot be rejected on the grounds of race. The NAACP has had white members in the past. Some of its founders were white. As the late Roy Wilkins -- the former executive director of the NAACP -- said when asked why whites were allowed to join, ''Civil rights is everybody's business.''

Mr. Denny is as free of bitterness as Mr. King is, maybe more so. When he testified at the trial of the men accused of beating him, he could have lied and fingered the defendants as his assailants. Instead, he told the truth: He couldn't remember who had beaten him. After his testimony, he went to the mothers of both defendants and hugged them.

He has consistently pointed out that even though blacks attacked him, blacks also saved his life. He is on record as saying that his assailants should not be punished too harshly. If there is any one person in the country who is a symbol of racial harmony, Reginald Denny is it.

So why hasn't he received an invitation from Ben Chavis and the NAACP to join the organization? The reason might be found in what I call, for the lack of a better name -- The Story.

The Story has circulated in the nation's black communities. The Baltimore Afro-American even did a story about The Story. It goes like this:

Reginald Denny actually provoked the attack on him at Florence and Normandie avenues. The Story says he drove by a group of protesters who had gathered to assail the verdict that acquitted four police officers in the beating of Rodney King, shouted that Mr. King had gotten what he deserved and even thrown in the dreaded ''N'' word for good measure. Only then did his attackers assault him.

How did The Story make the rounds among blacks across the country -- even to the point that a major black newspaper reported it? For many blacks the scenario is familiar. I've received all sorts of insults from white motorists. I've been called coon, jigaboo and the all-American standby -- nigger. I've also been called ''black'' followed by a common four-syllable expletive suggesting that I suffer from an Oedipal complex of Brobdingnagian proportions.

But that is where The Story loses credibility. Such incidents usually involve anywhere from three to six white guys and a case of beer, not one lone truck driver. The object of the verbal barrage is usually a lone black person, not dozens. There are other reasons I am skeptical about The Story.

* For my on sanity, I have to believe there is a limit to human stupidity.

* The Story sounds as if it were concocted by one or more defendants who are trying to avoid a long stretch in jail. The tale wreaks of bat guano.

There will still be cynics who believe The Story, who will insist that there is some truth to it because Reginald Denny has been too forgiving. But I believe the man is sincere. Ben Chavis should invite Mr. Denny to join the NAACP today and look on in glee as the organization's critics are befuddled into silence.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Sun.

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