Chavis, Farrakhan share goal

June 16, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

Standing before the cameras at the Baltimore black leadership summit, NAACP Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan were a portrait of two men trying hard to expand their followings in black America.

Dr. Chavis, 46, as leader of a traditionally integrationist organization, took a major risk by inviting Minister Farrakhan, a fiery black separatist with a history of anti-Jewish remarks, to the three-day summit.

The NAACP executive director gambled that by defiantly sitting down with Minister Farrakhan, 61, the nation's largest civil rights group would gain black support, especially from youth, that would make up for any loss of white allies and money.

"The first question is legitimacy: Most young blacks won't listen to civil rights leaders," said Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political scientist. "You've got to get young people to listen. That, hopefully, is what this summit was all about."

In holding the summit, Dr. Chavis appealed not to white opinion, but to his core constituency -- black Americans. As the NAACP's youngest executive director ever, he is trying to build the NAACP of the future by recruiting black youth.

When the summit concluded Tuesday with no apparent discord, Dr. Chavis was quick to claim victory.

Nothing tangible resulted, but just the presence of Minister Farrakhan, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, together helped Dr. Chavis reposition the NAACP.

"The symbolism is important -- the fact that they came together and put forward a united front," said Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman and civil rights activist. "Right now black Americans are very frustrated, very disenchanted. There's a perception that black leadership is not in dependent enough."

The one sure applause line of the summit was one of many variations on this Chavis theme:

"Never again will we allow any external force to the African-American community attempt to dictate who we can meet with, where we can meet and what we can meet about. Never again."

Jewish activists and some in the NAACP protested that the civil rights group had lost moral authority to condemn bigotry by consorting with the Nation of Islam.

Michael Meyers, an NAACP dissident who heads the New York Civil Rights Coalition, described the summit as "a bunch of black extremist radicals who got together, absent any militant integrationist voices, had cordial discussions and came to the conclusion that more racial rhetoric was the order of the day."

Right to talk defended

The protests helped the black leaders establish their independence by defending their right to talk.

Dr. Chavis knew that no other African-American leader can draw young blacks like Minister Farrakhan. While the Nation of Islam leader is anathema to many white Americans, he has won considerable respect among blacks, even those who wish he would stop bashing Jews.

Seventy percent of blacks called Minister Farrakhan "someone who says things the country should hear" and 63 percent said he "speaks the truth," according to a Time/CNN poll taken in February. Only 34 percent termed him "a bigot and a racist."

He mines a lode of anger among America's 32 million blacks. Polls show that middle-class blacks are just as angry as the one-third who live in poverty. The white-black gaps in income and education remain large.

While Minister Farrakhan draws a crowd wherever he goes, the Nation of Islam has only 20,000 to 30,000 members, says VTC Lawrence H. Mamiya, a Vassar College specialist on the group. The Nation's rigid discipline apparently appeals to few of the curious.

Broader base sought

Minister Farrakhan, like Dr. Chavis, "wants to broaden his base as much as possible to increase his leverage," Dr. Mamiya said. The NAACP summit provided "legitimacy."

The political risks to Minister Farrakhan of dealing with mainstream civil rights leaders are hard to gauge, given the secrecy in which the Nation of Islam operates.

A younger, even more fiery leader, Khallid Muhammad, has a following in the Nation, but "outwardly we don't see any break" between him and Minister Farrakhan, Dr. Mamiya said.

Despite his conciliatory tone at the summit, Minister Farrakhan is viewed as unlikely to shed his core beliefs: that blacks should have a separate nation, and that "whites are the major cause of problems for blacks, whether you use the term devil or not."

In ways that are often overlooked, the Farrakhan and Chavis philosophies differ markedly. Beyond his racially charged rhetoric, Minister Farrakhan sounds more than a little like a rock-ribbed Reaganite.

He is a strong opponent of abortion and homosexuality, stresses family values, advocates self-help, scorns government programs, and believes that "behavior and character count, a very Republican argument," Dr. Mamiya said.

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