Whatever NAACP Board Does About Chavis, the Organization Faces a Critical Challenge

August 14, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

No one knows what will happen when the 64-member NAACP national board of directors meets here next week to consider the controversy swirling around Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.

Dr. Chavis has been embroiled in one controversy or another almost from the moment he assumed his present post. First there was the flap over the deal he struck with Denny's owner Jerome J. Richardson in which he seemed to endorse rival Charlotte for an NFL expansion franchise. Next came his overtures to Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan and the uproar over a meeting of black radicals he held in Detroit last spring without the knowledge of his board. Now he is at the center of a messy financial scandal that involves charges of sexual harassment and discrimination, large sums paid out as "hush money" and open revolt among his board of directors.

Last May, Dr. Chavis took over an organization that was financially troubled, uncertain of its mission, yet still committed to lead the nation's 32 million African-Americans to a position of complete equality in American society.

Now, little more than a year later, his job is on the line. The special emergency meeting of the board scheduled for Aug. 20 will present Dr. Chavis with the most critical challenge of his career.

If he is able to convince the board that he should remain as head of the nation's oldest civil rights group, he could go on to a brilliant career comparable to those of such illustrious predecessors as Roy Wilkins and Walter White, who were nothing if not famous for embroiling themselves and the NAACP in the great controversies of their day.

Dr. Chavis himself was no stranger to controversy even before he came to the NAACP. As a youthful activist, he served five years in prison for participating in the protests that finally brought the civil rights movement to Wilmington, N.C., in the 1970s, years after such powerful bastions of segregation as Birmingham, Ala., had begun to yield to the repeated hammer blows of King and his followers in the Deep South.

But the controversy around Dr. Chavis today is of a quite different sort. It involves allegations by a female former employee of the NAACP of sexual harassment and discrimination, "hush money" and financial misfeasance that threaten to tear the organization apart.

Nothing could be worse for black Americans at this point in their history than for the NAACP to self-destruct. If anything, the magnitude of the problems confronting this generation of African-Americans is as great as at any time in their history in America.

Nearly half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court's historic Brown decision outlawed segregation in the public schools, half of all black children are growing up in families living below the federal poverty line.

The proportion of single-parent, female-headed households among blacks has more than doubled since 1960, to over 50 percent. Meanwhile black unemployment remains roughly twice that of whites, a ratio that has not significantly changed despite 30 years of government-mandated affirmative action and the passage of tough legislation banning discrimination in the workplace.

Dr. Chavis has plunged himself and the NAACP into these intractable problems, and he can even claim some successes in beginning to address them. He managed to weather the storm over his embrace of Minister Farrakhan as an ally in the broader civil rights struggle, despite criticism that reaching out to the separatist leader implied an acceptance of views that were anathema to many white Americans, especially Jews.

The crisis confronting the NAACP board today goes far deeper )) than the question of whether Dr. Chavis improperly used organization funds to settle a claim of sexual harassment and discrimination by a former employee. It involves nothing less than the future direction of the organization in a new era in which the stakes and the rules of the game have all changed.

The board itself is something of an anachronism. It is stacked with elderly members who derive considerable prestige from their positions of importance and their association with the venerable NAACP name, but most of whom are far removed from the day-to-day workings of the organization.

Whatever the board members eventually decide, they will have to face a fundamental dilemma. If, for example, they chose to stand behind Dr. Chavis, the organization could find it even more difficult to raise funds from wealthy white supporters and corporate sponsors.

With the group already facing a $3.3 million deficit this year, the prospect of a fall-off in contributions threatens to push the group into insolvency.

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