Anger and Optimism at the NAACP

July 17, 1994

The NAACP wrapped up its 85th national convention in Chicago last week in a mood of angry defiance toward its critics inside and outside the organization. The meeting seemed to confirm the direction Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who took office last year, is attempting to lead the nation's oldest civil rights group. But it also revealed contradictions and divisions that could hamper future progress.

Mr. Chavis, for example, has made recruiting more young people a major goal. At the convention, he saw his position vindicated by the election to the group's governing board of a 20-year-old college student, Chelle M. Luper, over C. DeLores Tucker, a civil rights veteran who had criticized Mr. Chavis' meetings with "gangsta rappers" and raised questions about the NAACP's $2.7 million deficit.

Mr. Chavis also used the gathering to answer critics of his invitation to Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan to a meeting of black leaders in Baltimore last month and his meeting with other leaders in Detroit earlier this year. Some board members complained they weren't informed of the Detroit meeting. But Mr. Chavis insisted that the convention had "enabled me to continue my outreach efforts to broaden the base of the NAACP, and to reassert and reposition our leadership."

The 3,000 delegates also backed a Chavis plan to open an office in South Africa at a cost of at least $750,000 a year. Critics had charged the organization was spending beyond its means for trips abroad by Mr. Chavis and his staff. NAACP board president William Gibson called the vote a ratification of his and Mr. Chavis' leadership.

But while the mood at the convention was generally upbeat, there was also a disturbing strain of intolerance and paranoia. Mr. Chavis repeated attacks on the news media for its coverage of such issues as the controversy surrounding Mr. Farrakhan and the O.J. Simpson murder case. He was blaming the messenger for the message.

Though groups bashing the press is nothing new -- witness the National Rifle Association -- the NAACP traditionally has considered the national news media an ally in its struggle for equal rights. Now, Mr. Chavis says, "the media is seen almost as an enemy of the civil rights movement." That kind of overstatement could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Mr. Chavis is not careful. The NAACP has set itself an ambitious new agenda. Better to deal with the real problems confronting black Americans today than fritter away energy and allies on the kind of Farrakhan-style demagogy Mr. Chavis says he eschews.

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