Chavis' NAACP outreach leaves some members cold

April 11, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

AMHERST, Mass. -- The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. was right at home -- posing for snapshots with a clutch of University of Massachusetts honor students, just the sort of bright, young blacks he wants as NAACP activists.

Dr. Chavis, 46, has made rejuvenating the NAACP the central theme of his tenure since being named a year ago last weekend as the youngest chief executive of the nation's oldest civil rights group.

But generational change isn't painless. Cook up a new NAACP with black youth, and you add a hip-hop flavor -- from "gangsta" rap music's nasty lyrics to Louis Farrakhan's often anti-Jewish declamations -- that may spoil the sauce for older folks.

The leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has traversed a minefield in his first year on the job. He has trodden carefully between elders and youth, middle class and "underclass," the NAACP's traditionally integrationist principles and the Nation of Islam's frankly separatist ideology.

After Dr. Chavis spoke here Thursday night, a black UMass political science major came to him with a complaint. When Minister Farrakhan spoke on campus in March at black students' behest, the young man recounted bitterly, the local NAACP's middle-aged leadership condemned the Nation of Islam leader's message.

"Do not let that incident turn you away from the organization," Dr. Chavis said, enveloping the young man in a bear hug. "The NAACP has to be the one organization that brings us all together."

Dr. Chavis, a lesser-known civil rights veteran, won the NAACP board's nod to succeed the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks as executive directorover the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a national celebrity. A year later, the NAACP leader's name is still often mispronounced (it's CHAY-viss), and both Mr. Jackson and Minister Farrakhan draw bigger crowds.

But the North Carolina native, a serious but approachable

minister who spent more than four years in prison on a fire-bombing conviction that was later overturned, has spent a year crisscrossing the country to make his name synonymous with the NAACP.

The past week's itinerary: Atlanta; Jackson, Miss.; Charlotte, N.C. (to sit in President Clinton's skybox at the collegiate basketball championship); Chicago; Baltimore (NAACP headquarters); Charlotte again (to meet with the chairman of NationsBank); Amherst; Detroit (for a controversial private meeting with black nationalists); Greensboro, N.C.; and Washington (for a family dinner with Vice President Al Gore).

Dr. Chavis has often made the symbolic gesture. He lived for a week in a Los Angeles public housing project, and he organized three "summits" of youth gang leaders.

He has stumbled into unwanted controversy. He seemed to endorse rival Charlotte's bid for a National Football League franchise while Baltimore, the NAACP's home, pined for a team. He honored Rodney G. King as a "symbol of fighting injustice" just before the victim of the Los Angeles police beatings was again arrested for drunken driving. He met Friday with black radicals without letting his national board know.

But nothing has defined Dr. Chavis' attempt to reposition the NAACP so much as his dealings with Minister Farrakhan.

First, he disinvited the black separatist leader from the NAACP-organized 30th anniversary March on Washington last August.

But the next month, in the name of black unity, Dr. Chavis said he was wrong. Since then he has worked to bring Minister Farrakhan under the civil rights tent, even after a Farrakhan aide called Jews "bloodsuckers."

In search of diversity

Dr. Chavis insists that, by asserting the NAACP's need to talk with Minister Farrakhan, he neither endorses the black nationalist position nor abandons the NAACP's historical role of building multiracial coalitions for reform.

"The NAACP is the only national organization other than the black church that has the capacity to broadly represent the diversity within African-American people," he said in an interview. "The question is: Can you have that kind of diversity in one organization? For me, the answer is yes. In fact, I think it is necessary."

Dr. Chavis describes his reaching out to the young, the disaffected and the black nationalists as expanding the NAACP's base and responding to its "primary constituency," black America.

And black America has considerable regard for Minister Farrakhan. Nearly two-thirds of black Americans polled by Time magazine in February said the black separatist "speaks the truth" and is "good for the black community." Only a third labeled him "a bigot and a racist."

A risk to mission?

But critics say that by seeming to sympathize with the Nation of Islam leader, whose group calls whites devils, Dr. Chavis risks forfeiting the NAACP's moral authority to condemn racial prejudice when it appears in other guises.

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