Farrakhan sideshow

July 13, 1994|By Benjamin F. Chavis

Chicago -- FIFTY YEARS ago, the civil rights movement battled the concrete ills of legal segregation.

We now face that era's legacy, a more insidious and complex form of injustice characterized by drastic disparities between the races.

The socioeconomic gap has created an equally alarming chasm of attitudes and perceptions.

Almost half of all African-American children live in poverty. Black unemployment is twice that of whites. The infant mortality rate in many black communities is equal to that of many Third World nations.

The statistics for housing, crime and education deliver a tragic statement of despair and inequality. Yet in polls, more than 60 percent of whites say blacks now have equal opportunity.

I came to the helm of the NAACP last year painfully mindful of these grim realities.

At the time, many were questioning the organization's relevance and calling it out of touch. Among civil-rights activists, a consensus began to emerge that the movement must be redefined -- that the traditional medicine for the ills of legal apartheid is not enough to cure the crime, poverty and inequality that plague us, especially our youth.

The emphasis on youth is key, for without the young a movement will wither and die. Our organization is still disproportionately led by those of my generation and older.

When I took over, I accepted a mandate to reach out to youth, and I've made good on that promise. In the past year, membership has grown almost 25 percent, to more than 650,000. And 65 percent of all new members are under age 24.

But our story of progress has been distorted by a media frenzy over a few critics from within -- less than 1 percent of the NAACP's membership, according to internal polls.

Much of the criticism focuses on my commitment to be part of a dialogue with disparate parts of the community.

In the 1960s a panoply of black organizations was dedicated to attacking discrimination.

Each sliced its own piece of the civil-rights pie. The leaders of the moderate organizations sometimes shunned those of the more militant ones.

While the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was revered by the civil-rights establishment, the Nation of Islam's forceful spokesman, Malcolm X, was reviled.

Yet the civil-rights gains were tremendous, for black Americans and the nation as whole. And today blacks celebrate the memories of both Malcolm and Martin.

Perhaps the gains would have been even greater if there had been less division at the time.

Jewish Americans have also made a vital contribution to the civil-rights movement. Blacks and Jews have a long and honorable alliance that should continue. Neither I nor the NAACP has ever embraced any anti-Semitic beliefs, nor would we countenance them.

But now our unity is being threatened by critics who say that entering into a dialogue with Minister Louis Farrakhan implies an acceptance of his philosophy.

That is not the case. Whether it is Nelson Mandela sitting down with foes of a nonracial South Africa or the Israeli government talking with the Palestine Liberation Organization, discussion does not imply endorsement. It is a necessary exercise for progress.

There is room in a democracy for debate over the Nation of Islam's role in the struggle for a better life for African Americans.

But that question pales alongside the dire condition of racial injustice in our nation today. I wish the effects of poverty would draw the media attention that Minister Farrakhan's presence -- as one of 100 participants -- did at the recent African-American Leadership Summit in Baltimore.

At our 85th annual convention here this week, the NAACP has shown its ability to combine the new and the old: to maintain its historic commitment to challenge racial inequity while expanding our efforts to address some of the life-and-death issues facing the African-American community.

We've entered into partnerships with two banks to provide home mortgages and assistance for small-business development.

Act-So, our academic Olympics, attracted more than 300,000 young contestants.

Our anti-violence campaign persuaded 10,000 young people to lay down their weapons.

In revitalizing our movement, we need every voice of good will. Let us debate. But let us not allow debate to become a wedge that divides.

Benjamin F. Chavis, executive director of the NAACP, wrote this article for the New York Times.

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