NAACP's board of directors faces its severest test

August 14, 1994|By Ivan Penn and James Bock | Ivan Penn and James Bock,Sun Staff Writers

The NAACP board of directors that is to convene in Baltimore Saturday to weigh the fate of Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is much like the civil rights group itself -- largely middle-aged, middle-class, tradition-minded -- and far too numerous to fit in most board rooms.

The 64 members of the NAACP board include lawyers, doctors, preachers, judges, civil servants, trade unionists, business people, retirees and students. More than half hail from Southern and border states stretching from Maryland to Texas. Although the NAACP's membership is nearly two-thirds women, the board is three-fourths men.

"A 64-member board, it's a small legislature," said Roger Wilkins, a nephew of Roy Wilkins, who retired in 1977 after serving 22 years as the NAACP's executive director. "It's very hard to understand how a board of that size can function effectively."

In the organization's 85-year history, the board -- which started out at 30 members in 1909 and reached its present size in 1968 -- has grappled with civil rights heavyweights the likes of Mr. Wilkins, W. E. B. DuBois and the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks.

But never has it faced a situation like the one it now confronts: Dr. Chavis, the 46-year-old executive director, will stand before the body that elected him only 16 months ago to defend a secret settlement of up to $332,400 that he made with a woman who has accused him in court papers of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

The issue is expected to draw a crowd. Enolia McMillan, 89, a legendary Baltimore teacher and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says this will be the first board meeting she has attended in several years.

Mrs. McMillan is old enough to be Dr. Chavis' grandmother, and she looks on his secret deal -- made without the board's knowledge -- as something like the misbehavior of a wayward child.

"If you think you might not get their approval, you might not think of asking. Kids do that with their parents," she said.

Other board members are young enough to be Dr. Chavis'

children, and they have been among his most fervent supporters as he has tried to ignite young blacks' interest in the NAACP.

Neither the board, including Chairman William F. Gibson, nor the NAACP general counsel knew of Dr. Chavis' agreement in November 1993 on behalf of the NAACP with Mary E. Stansel, the aide whom he fired after six weeks on the job. Ms. Stansel has been unavailable for comment.

Board members want to know why Dr. Chavis kept the settlement secret, why he bypassed the NAACP's lawyers and used outside attorneys, why $64,000 in NAACP funds -- and $18,400 from unidentified "friends" -- paid to Ms. Stansel didn't appear on financial statements, and why $250,000 that Ms. Stansel now claims she is due wasn't listed by NAACP accountants as a contingent liability.

The dispute goes to the heart of Dr. Chavis' credibility.

Some board members had already been angered by his reaching out to black separatist Louis Farrakhan, calling a secret meeting of black nationalists without telling board members, reportedly lobbying on behalf of the North American Free Trade Agreement disregard of an NAACP position against the pact, and overseeing accumulation of a nearly $3 million deficit.

If Dr. Chavis survives the challenge to his leadership, some board members wonder whether the controversy will scare off donors from giving generously to the NAACP. If the board dumps the executive director, others question whether the civil rights group will be viewed as abandoning its effort to attract young and disaffected blacks as members.

"I don't think there is any question that they are going through some tough times," said Dr. Hooks, who was executive director from 1977 to 1993. "The major concern of corporate contributors and most contributors is that the board should be on top of the situation, and they should show that they are on top of it."

Struggles between the NAACP's board and executives are nothing new. In 1934, the board forced W. E. B. DuBois, the brilliant intellectual, to resign as the NAACP's director of publications and editor of its magazine, The Crisis. They felt he was espousing a black nationalist strategy that was incompatible with NAACP tradition.

The most notable clash in recent decades was the 1983 showdown between Dr. Hooks and Board Chairman Margaret Bush Wilson, a St. Louis lawyer described by associates then as "Mary Poppins with a razor blade" for her formal demeanor and inner toughness.

Mrs. Wilson reportedly demanded the results of an overdue audit and Dr. Hooks refused, noting that Mrs. Wilson had blocked the firing of the auditor who was responsible for the delay. They had words, and suddenly, without consulting the board, she suspended Dr. Hooks.

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