Chavis' Big Tent

June 25, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

What, if anything, was really accomplished at the NAACP's black leadership conference last week? The answer depends mostly on whether one takes the long or the short view. In the short run the meeting resulted in little more than a resolve to meet again in a couple of months.

NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis says the mere fact that a group of leaders with such diverse views could get together represented a victory of sorts. There may be a grain of truth to that but it's hardly grounds for ''dancing in the streets,'' as he has suggested.

Mr. Chavis paid a high price for his meeting, both in money and in his group's image of probity. The organization is struggling to cope with a $900,000 deficit last year and an accumulated deficit of $2.7 million. It's lost money four years running on its televised Image Awards program. And this year it had to pay a $680,000 court judgment.

The conference, put on at not inconsiderable cost, given the state of the group's finances, was one of a series of Chavis initiatives designed to revitalize the NAACP. Yet whatever the conventioneers might have accomplished was overshadowed by the presence of the Nation of Islam's Minister Louis Farrakhan. Jewish groups, angered by his inclusion, protested every day of the convention, forcing Mr. Chavis and others to continually defend the fiery nationalist -- in effect allowing ''outsiders'' to set the agenda after all.

Mr. Chavis and his critics both might have benefited from taking a longer view. The conference was essentially an attempt to renew a dialog between two traditionally rival wings of the black movement, ''mainstream'' integrationists and separatist ''nationalists.''

Their quarrel is nearly as old as the history of blacks in America. Mr. Farrakhan is the most visible representative of the nationalist trend today, but if he weren't around his place surely would be taken by someone else with whom Mr. Chavis would have to deal.

Mr. Farrakhan's seeming obsession with Jews, for which he has been roundly condemned, is a variation on an old separatist theme, i.e., that whites are responsible for all of blacks' misery. There are at least a couple of ironies in how this issue has played out.

The first, pointed out in an article written by Emerge editor George E. Curry in the current issue of that magazine, is that Mr. Farrakhan may have perversely seen his attacks on Jews as a moderation of his previous denunciations of all whites as ''devils.''

Mr. Curry relates how Mr. Farrakhan was once reprimanded by Nation of Islam Founder Elijah Muhammad for his ''hate-whitey'' rhetoric. Mr. Muhammad reportedly urged his protege to ''[lift] our expression so that we could greet and meet a larger community of people'' -- advice Mr. Farrakhan apparently interpreted to mean be more selective in your choice of targets.

Mr. Curry suggests Jews filled that prescription when a militant fringe group, the Jewish Defense League, appeared to threaten Jesse Jackson during his first run for president in 1984. Mr. Farrakhan, who had developed a friendship with Mr. Jackson during their years in Chicago, offered to provide Nation of Islam security personnel for the candidate.

Mr. Farrakhan also delivered an inflammatory speech in which he appeared to blame all Jews for the Jewish Defense League threats and vowed revenge if the candidate were harmed. To this day, Nation of Islam members date the controversy over Mr. Farrakhan's anti-Semitism to that period.

The second irony, of course, is that the idea that whites -- Gentile and Jew -- are responsible for black misery is probably less true today than ever. Yet given the depressing legacy of race relations in this country it's understandable why many blacks believe it.

That, rather than any affinity for anti-Semitism, explains things like the recent Time/CNN poll showing 70 percent of blacks think Mr. Farrakhan ''is someone who says things the country should hear.''

Mr. Chavis wants to bring them all under his tent -- particularly the disadvantaged young people whom the NAACP most needs to reach. He knows they are motivated not by religious bigotry but rather by a deep mistrust of the ''mainstream'' society that has excluded them.

The argument between integrationists and separatists is not going to go away. But history shows that over the long term the possibility of fruitful dialog does exist between the two. That is what the NAACP, along with everyone who shares its goals of equality and justice for all Americans, ought to be aiming for now.

E9 Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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