The Downfall Of Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis

August 22, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Ann LoLordo, Michael A. Fletcher, Ivan Penn and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this article.

No one knew it then, but the end of the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.'s stormy 16 1/2 months as NAACP executive director began June 30 with some shuffling of paper in the clerk's office of District of Columbia Superior Court.

That day Mary E. Stansel, who worked so briefly at the civil rights group's Baltimore headquarters that few members of the NAACP board of directors even remember her, filed suit. Ms. Stansel, a 49-year-old lawyer whom Dr. Chavis fired in May 1993, charged him and the NAACP with breach of contract.

That filing put on the public record a secret deal in which Dr. Chavis had agreed to pay Ms. Stansel up to $332,400 -- without telling his board or the NAACP general counsel. The Stansel lawsuit set in motion a chain of events that culminated Saturday night in Baltimore when all but a handful of 57 NAACP board members present voted to fire Ben Chavis.

The 46-year-old executive director's dismissal capped three weeks of controversy, and it ended the most profound internal upheaval in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 85-year history.

Yet participants said the board meeting that ousted Dr. Chavis, held behind the stained-glass windows and doors of the NAACP's Roy Wilkins Auditorium, was devoid of rancor, emotion or high drama. They described it as businesslike.

"There was no finger-pointing," said Dr. Robert Gilliard, a board member from Mobile, Ala. "We just dealt with the facts. . . . There was no banging fists on tables or yelling. Everybody stayed very subdued and calm throughout the whole discussion."

This is a story, based on interviews with two dozen board members and other NAACP sources, of the firing of Ben Chavis, leader of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group.

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Mary Stansel had known Ben Chavis since about 1980, when Dr. Chavis was paroled after more than four years in North Carolina prisons. The fiery young minister who wore a Roman collar and an Afro had been convicted of conspiracy in the 1971 firebombing of a white-owned Wilmington grocery. His conviction was later overturned.

Dr. Chavis had become a cause celebre as a member of the Wilmington 10, deemed American political prisoners by Amnesty International.

Ms. Stansel, a native Alabamian, made her mark in the early 1970's as one of only eight black students at the University of Georgia law school. Then, in 1979, she settled in as a legislative analyst on Capitol Hill for Sen. Howell Heflin, an Alabama Democrat.

The two young black activists met in Washington. And it was there where their paths crossed again in early 1993 at a congressional reception.

Dr. Chavis, then executive director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, was readying a campaign to be NAACP executive director. Ms. Stansel was out of work, having left Senator Heflin's office on a disability claim, and willing to help out.

In February 1993, what Chavis intimates called "The Team" came together. Their mission: grab the NAACP leadership for Ben Chavis. The competition was formidable, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. He apparently had the backing of Dr. William F. Gibson, a Greenville, S.C., dentist who had known Mr. Jackson from childhood and who happened to be NAACP board chairman.

The Team included Larry Wallace, a Washington lawyer and longtime Chavis friend; Lewis Myers Jr., a Chicago lawyer who did legal work for the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan; Don Rojas, outgoing editor of Harlem's Amsterdam News and a former aide to Maurice Bishop, the prime minister killed before the U.S. invasion of Grenada; and Baltimore businessman Anthony Fugett, whose brother Reginald F. Lewis, the wealthiest black man in America, had died in January. Dr. Chavis gave the eulogy at the Lewis funeral in West Baltimore.

Ms. Stansel joined The Team to work the phones and fax machine at Mr. Wallace's suburban Washington office and keep Dr. Chavis' schedule as he lobbied board members around the nation. She went with The Team to the Atlanta NAACP board meeting where Dr. Chavis was elected April 9, 1993.

Jobs for The Team

Dr. Chavis, having snagged a three-year contract to run the NAACP at about $200,000 a year, rewarded The Team.

Mr. Myers was named deputy executive director, with a six-figure salary. Mr. Rojas was made director of communications. Mr. Wallace's wife, Lorena, was put in the newly created position of comptroller. Mr. Fugett became an unpaid national board member. And Ms. Stansel was Dr. Chavis' interim administrative assistant.

Veterans at NAACP headquarters generally regarded the Chavis team as haughty and aloof. But they singled out Ms. Stansel for special disdain. They resented her edict to make office workers sign out when they went to lunch and leave a phone number where they could be reached.

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