Chavis' unifying vision

June 09, 1994|By Carl Upchurch

NOT SINCE the 19th century, when chattel slavery was finally abolished, has black America so desperately needed leadership. On June 12, some 70 leaders from the African-American community will gather in Baltimore to address that need. But this crucial meeting may be derailed before it even begins.

A cacophony of outside voices are raising their own ethnic, religious and political agendas -- many of which are intent on sabotaging the spirit and strategy of the summit's convener, Benjamin F. Chavis. Since Mr. Chavis rose last year to lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, his efforts to broaden that organization have brought a storm of criticism.

During the last year African Americans and urban communities have come together to establish a unity of purpose. Witness the Urban Peace and Justice Summit, held in Kansas City, Mo., in April 1993, and the March on Washington commemorating the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Ex-gang members, Wall Street types, welfare mothers, ex-dope fiends, doctors, ex-convicts, lawyers, academicians -- all are working together for freedom, economic justice and spiritual reclamation.

Unfortunately, these events were marred by, and mired in, debates about who should or could attend and speak at such gatherings. Some of these debates were internal, but often they were started by pundits and politicians serving their own agendas.

Mr. Chavis has taken the most heat for his willingness to talk with Louis Farrakhan. Yet Mr. Farrakhan is included in black councils not because of his extremist rhetoric, but because many African-Americans believe he tries to improve the lot of those this society has chosen to forget.

Why are people threatened when prominent African-Americans demonstrate unity with the poor? How can we explain the monotonous regularity with which some blacks, whites, Jews and Christians have instructed black leaders to repudiate, disassociate, and exclude many African-American leaders who work with the most disenfranchised of our society?

Mr. Chavis is trying to dignify and empower the powerless; that's why he's controversial. Mr. Chavis has a long history as a man of God and a faithful servant of those who languish in poverty and despair. He now finds himself, even within his own organization, swimming desperately in waters populated by sharks intent on shredding his vision of unifying the poor and downtrodden.

The petty and underhanded attacks are attempting to fracture African-American leadership along class lines. Those who have served the system well are "in." Those who are hungry, poor, imprisoned, infected with the HIV virus, victims of environmental pollution, ignorant and homeless are "out."

Ben Chavis wants the "in" to work with the "out," and we desperately need him to succeed. The joblessness, the violence and the unmitigated despair that currently threaten to extinguish the lives of so many urban Americans demand an urgent and unified response. This gulf separating the poor from being full American citizens must be the focal point of our leadership. Sound-bite specialists intent on disrupting African-American unity on this point cannot be allowed to manipulate the public stage.

Remembering Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, one can't help but wonder what fate lies ahead for Ben Chavis and the many others dedicated to articulating a vision that includes "the least of these."

Those visionaries of the 1960s are dead today because they dared to promote what Mr. Chavis has placed foremost on his agenda. Those fighting this changing of the guard for black America are helping to create the same climate which destroyed Malcolm, Martin and Medgar.

"We will make the NAACP a vibrant organization for all of our people," said Mr. Chavis when he accepted the NAACP's mantle of leadership. "From African-American professionals on Wall Street to despairing and alienated masses in our inner cities, from the farmers on the land to the workers in offices and factories, from our revered elders to our dynamic youth . . . we will succeed. Working together, we will bring forth an inspiring vision of a more just, compassionate and prosperous America, of a nation where all of its people -- irrespective of race, class, gender, or ethnic background -- can live lives of decency and dignity."

This is the vision of Ben Chavis, and it deserves a full and honest hearing before the American people.

Carl Upchurch lives in Granville, Ohio, and is president of the National Council for Urban Peace and Justice headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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