Crisis at the NAACP

August 03, 1994

Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. of the NAACP has put his organization in an awkward position. Mr. Chavis agreed to pay up to $332,400 in NAACP funds to a former employee in exchange for her dropping a lawsuit against him alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. He did not inform the NAACP board of what he had done, and when asked directly at last month's convention in Chicago whether the group had any judgments or lawsuits pending he replied that it did not.

No one can know whether the charges of sexual discrimination and harassment have merit. But that is not the primary focus of the 64-member NAACP board's concern. It has scheduled a meeting in Baltimore Aug. 20 to discuss the matter. Several members have voiced outrage that Mr. Chavis would commit the group, which is running a $3 million deficit, to pay such a large sum without notifying them. What kind of signal, they ask, does Mr. Chavis' actions send to potential donors about the NAACP's ability to manage its finances responsibly? Mr. Chavis would like to blame "the media" for his problems, but in this affair he has been his own worst enemy.

The matter became public only after a former employee, Mary E. Stansel, filed suit in June alleging that Mr. Chavis and the NAACP had reneged on their agreement. Ms. Stansel, who worked briefly as Mr. Chavis' administrative assistant after he became director last year, provided no details of the alleged harassment in papers filed in the District of Columbia. At a news conference Sunday, Mr. Chavis refused to discuss why he agreed to settle with Ms. Stansel other than to say he wished "to protect the NAACP from exposure to false and slanderous allegations."

If that was his primary concern, he failed to achieve it. Both his own and the NAACP's reputation have been besmirched. The way in which Mr. Chavis handled this situation raises serious questions about his judgment. It would be one thing if he had agreed to pay his own money to settle Ms. Stansel's claim, but quite another to commit funds from a group that already is in a financial crisis. Although he may have wished to protect the NAACP, his explanations so far have a self-serving ring. These are issues the group's board must consider when it meets here in a few weeks. Not only is Mr. Chavis' job on the line, but also the credibility of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

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