Uncharted Waters for the NAACP

March 13, 1994

NAACP Director Ben Chavis' decision to go ahead with plans to invite the Nation of Islam's Minister Louis Farrakhan to a "summit" meeting of black leaders later this year is disturbing for many reasons -- not least because it runs counter to the NAACP's own historic stand against bigotry and intolerance of any kind.

It sends a mixed message even to those who share Mr. Chavis' understandable desire to see blacks unite to confront their common problems. The damage caused by the Farrakhan phenomenon is especially painful to the Jewish community, which supported the NAACP long before the civil rights movement became a driving force.

Mr. Chavis insists his organization has not abandoned its principles and has not entered into any "alliance" with Mr. Farrakhan that could compromise its moral integrity. Sitting down to talk, he says, does not imply endorsement of Mr. Farrakhan's racist views. Instead, it underscores the urgency of bringing blacks of all political persuasions together around a collective agenda of social equity and economic empowerment.

Mr. Chavis also argues that Mr. Farrakhan doesn't exist in a vacuum. He thrives because of the desperate living conditions afflicting millions of blacks a generation after the triumphs of the civil rights movement. The poverty, hopelessness and despair of the inner cities and the thousand smaller indignities blacks of all social classes suffer from white behavior, either deliberate or inadvertent, are what fuel the rage Mr. Farrakhan exploits.

Mr. Chavis believes it is more important to address the conditions that have caused so many younger African Americans to seek release in violence, drug abuse and crime than to expend energy trying to impose ideological uniformity on black leaders. If, by working together despite their differences, they can bring hope to a generation of blacks who have been virtually written off by white America, the appeal of demagogy will fade of itself, he believes. If not, the seeds of bigotry and intolerance will always find fertile ground.

Yet such a course is not without serious risks. The NAACP has embarked on uncharted waters that may strain relations with whites, Jews and Christians alike, who are sympathetic to the NAACP cause but loathe Farrakhan-style bigotry.

If the proposed "summit" produces few tangible results, Mr. Chavis and his mainstream colleagues will have needlessly elevated the stature of Mr. Farrakhan, who is sure to mock them for their trouble. Mr. Chavis hopes to draw Mr. Farrakhan toward moderation. But those who adopt extreme positions guard them jealously, lest still more extremist rivals steal their thunder. His own group's internal dynamics have wedded Mr. Farrakhan to hate. Rather than pander to the worst impulses in the black community, responsible leaders have a duty to reaffirm the humane values that underlie all real progress. How well Mr. Chavis succeeds in that task will be the true test of his leadership.

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