'If Chavis goes, we go' is a vow to cripple NAACP

August 18, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The crowd that packed a Brooklyn church to rally behind embattled NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. looked a lot like his vision for the venerable civil rights organization.

In the crowd of 800 Tuesday night were elders and youth, black nationalists and integrationists, Baptists and black Muslims -- united by their support of the more militant course Dr. Chavis has set for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

To Dr. Chavis and his supporters, the special meeting of the NAACP board set for Saturday is as much about the new direction of the civil rights group as it is about Dr. Chavis' decision to pay $332,400 to a fired aide who accused him of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment.

Dr. Chavis made the deal with Mary E. Stansel in November without consulting the board or the NAACP general counsel -- a fact that has outraged many NAACP officials.

Ms. Stansel has since sued the NAACP, claiming that the organization breached the agreement.

The settlement offer raised questions about Dr. Chavis' judgment, causing several NAACP branches and state conferences to call for his resignation.

But at the rally, Dr. Chavis would not brook any talk of quitting.

"No lawsuit is going to divert us off our course," Dr. Chavis told the crowd. "No false allegation. No false charge. . . . Some of you in the media constantly ask: 'When are you going to resign?' That is not in my vocabulary."

Dr. Chavis did not speak directly to the circumstances that led to the settlement, other than to deny any allegations of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination.

"If you really want to know about my personal life, I've been busy with my wife," he said.

The crowd roared when Martha Chavis, who is six months pregnant, stood up.

Instead of talking about the charges, Dr. Chavis and the two dozen speakers at the rally touted the new course Dr. Chavis has set in his 18 months at the helm of the 85-year-old civil rights group.

There were impassioned speeches about the second summit of African-American leaders to be held this weekend -- the day after Dr. Chavis' showdown with the board.

Many said Dr. Chavis showed courage in conducting the meeting in the face of determined opposition.

There were declarations about the NAACP's reinvigorated youth chapters. And there was defiant talk about Dr. Chavis' efforts to reach out to Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.

'Never again!'

"Never again will we allow forces outside our community to dictate who we will meet with," Dr. Chavis thundered, as the crowd rose to join him. "Never again! Never again! Never again! Never again!"

Minister Conrad Muhammad, a Nation of Islam leader in New York City, agreed: "No one has the right to keep us divided. No one has the right to say we can't meet. Think of the nerve of the white man!"

Implicit in those speeches was that the NAACP board risked fracturing whatever unity Dr. Chavis has fostered among African-American leaders if it removes him when it meets this weekend.

Explicit were threats from NAACP youth leaders who spoke at the rally. Their slogan: "If he goes, we go."

In an argument he promised to repeat to the board this weekend, Dr. Chavis said that the NAACP, while it must remain an integrated group, needs to get a majority of its financial support from the black community.

"Have you ever heard of a freedom movement where somebody else pays for the movement?" Dr. Chavis asked. The NAACP depends heavily on foundations and corporate backing to support its $18 million annual budget.

"The funding of the NAACP must . . . be in the hands of the African-American community," he concluded.

'Chump change'

Questions about Dr. Chavis' deal with Ms. Stansel have been linked with concerns about the NAACP's finances, because the group currently has nearly a $3 million deficit. But Dr. Chavis said the deficit amounts to mere "chump change."

"Three million dollars is chump change when you are talking about 40 million people of African descent in this country," he said.

"It doesn't make sense for the NAACP to be in financial deficit. But some of this situation has been inherited. If you look at our 85-year history, we've always been in trouble."

Organizers passed around wicker baskets to collect donations for the NAACP at the rally.

Aidleth M. Chambers, a teacher who lives in Brooklyn, dropped in a check for $100. She said she did it to support Dr. Chavis -- regardless of the facts surrounding the Stansel deal.

"I want to support the NAACP, but at the same time I want to keep Ben Chavis because he is taking the organization forward," she said. "If the settlement was made, you can't kill him for that. I believe the woman is being used to bring down Ben Chavis and the organization."

To Ms. Chambers and other Chavis supporters, it is Dr. Chavis' talk of NAACP independence that has imperiled his tenure, not his secret deal with Ms. Stansel.

"Ben Chavis represents a threat to the very process that has historically chosen who would lead us," Bob Law, a New York City radio talk show host, said to enthusiastic applause. "Somehow we have to be there making it clear: If Dr. Chavis goes, we go."

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