'Great-I-Am' thinking at NAACP's offices

August 11, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

The national headquarters of the NAACP sits in a stately, red-brick building at the end of Mount Hope Drive, on top of a lonely hill in Northwest Baltimore. It is surrounded by carefully landscaped gardens; decorated with bronze plaques that commemorate the organization's founding.

This headquarters exudes a sense of dignity and age and class. It could be the setting of an institution of higher education, a seminary, or the corporate offices of a 100-year-old insurance firm. It seems a fitting locale for the nation's oldest and most respected civil rights organization; harking back to a time when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People provided the moral authority for the nation.

Last year, Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis vowed to breathe new life into this venerable institution when he became the NAACP's executive director. He promised to broaden the membership base, open chapters overseas, revamp the NAACP's finances using corporate-style management techniques. He has pursued those goals with great energy -- national membership, for instance, is said to be up. NAACP members helped register voters in South Africa.

But Dr. Chavis also has displayed questionable judgment these past 12 months, involved the organization in a string of senseless controversies, and come close to squandering the NAACP's most valuable asset -- its moral authority.

The latest controversy, of course, centers on the revelation that Dr. Chavis committed as much as $332,400 in NAACP funds to settle a sex discrimination charge brought against him by a former employee, without first consulting the board or the NAACP general counsel. He did this while the organization was expecting to end the year with a $3.3 million budget deficit and while some board members were accusing him of profligate DTC spending. Some board members have called upon Dr. Chavis to resign.

My sense is that Dr. Chavis will remain as executive director when the board convenes at NAACP national headquarters to discuss the issue next week. Consider the alternative: A long, potentially divisive search for a successor; the sudden loss of momentum to Dr. Chavis' successful efforts to reach out to a younger membership.

But the controversy also serves to illustrate why so many young blacks no longer turn to the NAACP and other civil rights organizations for leadership, why their moral authority seems to erode further every day: Their leaders seem to have become hopelessly elitist and self-centered. They are chauffeured about in limousines. They fly about the nation to confer with corporate and political leaders. They hobnob only with other important people. The old folks in my family used to call this the "Great-I-Am" type of thinking.

It apparently never occurred to Dr. Chavis that he might not be worth almost a third of a million dollars. It never occurred to him that there might be more pressing uses for the money than to save his skin. If he had thought of this, I believe he would at least have cut a better deal.

Had it not been for the "Great-I-Am" mentality, Dr. Chavis might have avoided the other controversy of his 16-month tenure: His apparent embrace of Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Critics charged that the apparently anti-Semitic teachings Louis Farrakhan were incompatible with the NAACP's mission of brotherhood. Dr. Chavis fueled the furor by insisting that Dr. Farrakhan was not anti-Semitic, although some of Dr. Farrakhan's remarks suggest otherwise.

But Dr. Chavis' moral stance would have been much, much stronger had he declared that the NAACP community should reach out to the Nation of Islam community. In other words, had the reaching out been between people, not leaders.

Of course, such an approach might have eliminated the opportunity for civil rights leaders to posture and speechify on television in a "leadership" summit. (Another such summit is scheduled in Baltimore by the end of the month. Think of it as a summit of "Great-I-Ams.")

I believe Dr. Chavis will survive this current crisis. But I hope he comes out of this a wiser and more humble leader. Modesty, I suspect, is the best policy for those who would provide moral leadership.

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