Why does this man keep stumbling?

April 21, 1994|By Lisa Respers

WHEN NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. held a "secret" meeting with black radicals two weeks ago, he once again raised questions in the African American community concerning the soundness of his judgment.

Mr. Chavis invited 50 black activists, including Angela Davis, Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and rapper Sister Souljah to a closed-door meeting April 8 aimed at encouraging "access of Pan-Africans, progressives and nationalists into increased levels of membership and active participation within the NAACP at national and local levels."

As it turned out, many of those invited declined the invitation. Still, the meeting infuriated NAACP board members, who were not informed of the event.

This incident is not the first time Mr. Chavis has left many wondering exactly what he is trying to accomplish. He was sharply criticized for his overtures to the Nation of Islam's Minister Louis Farrakhan. His statements of support for Mr. Farrakhan after Nation spokesman Khalid Muhammed's anti-Semitic diatribe last year left many wondering whether he had lost his moral compass.

Then there was the gaffe that had Mr. Chavis appearing to "endorse" the bid by a Charlotte, N.C., business group for an NFL expansion team. Many were dismayed by Mr. Chavis' apparent lack of "loyalty" to Baltimore, the city that is the site of the NAACP's national headquarters and which has been pining for the return of big-league football ever since the departure of the Colts a decade ago.

Finally, last February the NAACP's board passed a resolution condemning so-called "gangsta rap" -- shortly after Mr. Chavis had sponsored a forum defending rap against censorship. C. DeLores Tucker of the National Political Congress of Black Women criticized Mr. Chavis and called on the NAACP to take a stand against rap music's violent, misogynistic lyrics.

Mr. Chavis seems caught between the old guard of the NAACP that is still rooted in the idealism of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and his desire to infuse the organization with new blood to ensure its survival in the 21st century.

This task is made even more difficult by Mr. Chavis' cloak-and-dagger style. The perception of underhandedness gives ammunition to neo-liberal optimists who think the NAACP is a political dinosaur that no longer serves any useful purpose in a post-civil rights era America that has largely accepted the ideals of "tolerance" and "diversity."

It is possible that any attempt to steer a path that pleases both left- and right-wing NAACP supporters is unachievable and may not even be desirable. There's no law that says all blacks have to think alike.

In any case, this is a time for damage control. The NAACP has taken many blows over the past year. It's tragic that the organization seems to be disintegrating slowly from the inside out.

There was a time when Mr. Chavis was hailed as the heir apparent for leadership in the post-civil rights era struggle against racism, discrimination and black poverty. The need has never been greater for effective leadership. But Mr. Chavis' missteps, gaffes and public relations blunders make him almost more a liability than an asset.

Lisa Respers is an editorial assistant in the Carroll County bureau of The Evening Sun.

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