Commander Chavis Orders an About-Face

June 21, 1994|By DENTON L. WATSON

FREEPORT, NEW YORK — Freeport, New York.--Forty years after it led the struggle for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision and 30 years after it won passage of the most far-reaching civil-rights act since Reconstruction, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is mired in chaos over strategy.

The bitter debate centers on the determination of the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, NAACP executive director, to reject the strategy that was essential for those victories in the courts and Congress and, instead, create alliances in the name of black unity.

During its most effective years in the 1960s, the NAACP forcefully rejected the Black Muslim philosophy and black militancy of activists like Stokeley Carmichael and Angela Davis as incompatible with its civil-rights struggle. Today Dr. Chavis aligns the NAACP with leaders like Louis Farrakhan. Rather than displaying vision, he is revealing a dangerous ignorance of his organization's history, and a political naivete that ill befits his position.

Clearly inspiring Dr. Chavis is the manner in which he electrified a packed hall last September at the annual Congressional Black Caucus weekend. Before that meeting, except for his fame as a persecuted member of the ''Wilmington 10,'' the group that had been railroaded into prison, Dr. Chavis was hardly known outside the United Church for Christ, where he was an official in Cleveland.

Now he became a national leader. He said that organizers made a mistake when they barred Mr. Farrakhan from participating in the commemorative march on Washington in August, and he announced plans to invite the Nation of Islam leader to his black summit meeting.

Mr. Farrakhan shrewdly played on the emotions of the crowd. Frustrated over the rank divisions within the race, the audience rousingly welcomed calls from Dr. Chavis and Mr. Farrakhan for black unity. Beware of ''our enemies who would divide us,'' Mr. Farrakhan appealed.

By embracing Mr. Farrakhan and discredited black militants, however, Dr. Chavis is not only spitting on the graves of those leaders who made the NAACP one of the most powerful movements in the 20th century, but he has also rejected the constitutional approach of his organization in preference for the Nation of Islam's self-limiting black nationalism.

Mr. Farrakhan has catapulted himself into a national force to replace his martyred nemesis Malcolm X, playing on the seething anger among blacks over Jewish opposition to affirmative action and other seeming betrayals. The depth of this anger can only be measured by the extent to which Crown Heights has become a metaphor of the bitterness between the two former allies.

No scapegoating of Jews, Koreans, Hispanics or any other group, however, can diminish the abject failure of blacks themselves to develop a coherent program to build on the gains of the 1960s. Rather than remedying this failing, Dr. Chavis is only compounding the problem.

He and many other blacks have failed to recognize the extent to which the NAACP served as the anchor of the civil-rights movement by creating far-reaching programs and working within the system to achieve change.

They refuse to study the organization's history in preference for that of other, more popular groups, which are erroneously given credit for most of the success of the civil-rights revolution. The rewriting of civil-rights history by blacks is thus to their own detriment.

Critics are nevertheless correct in regarding the NAACP today as a hollow shell of its old self. Even at branch meetings, members complain that the NAACP is nothing more than a social group. One of the clearest indicators of its loss of mission is its magazine, The Crisis. Once the vehicle for the ''hammer blows'' of its founder, W. E. B. Du Bois, the 20th-century sage, The Crisis' troubled state is exemplified by the criticism of one angry member that he ''wouldn't even take it to the toilet to read.''

While Dr. Chavis is now the lightning rod for critics, the current crisis did not begin with him. Staffers and some board members have long complained about the organization's ''Amos 'n' Andy'' leaders. The NAACP's weak and calcified national board of directors, led by William F. Gibson, bears the greatest share of the blame.

The calls for a new organization to serve the traditional NAACP mission are getting louder. Should Messrs. Chavis and Gibson continue to disregard the threat, they will have no one but themselves to blame for the destruction of the once great flagship NAACP.

Denton Watson, author of ''Lion in the Lobby, Clarence Mitchell Jr.'s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws,'' was formerly director of public relations for the NAACP.

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