Chavis' Downfall

August 22, 1994

*TC In firing the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. Saturday as executive director of the NAACP, the venerable civil rights organization's board of directors bowed to the inevitable and did what was necessary. Mercifully, the board acted swiftly and decisively to limit the damage.

Dr. Chavis clearly had become a serious liability to the group he headed. Having embroiled himself in controversy over his financial management of the organization and charges of sexual harassment and discrimination, he made his own credibility an issue that overrode all other concerns, including the new course he had set for the NAACP's future. Though he blamed unnamed "forces outside the African-American community" for his travails, his downfall was in fact entirely self-inflicted.

Matters came to a head last month, when it was revealed that Dr. Chavis had secretly entered into a potentially costly settlement for the NAACP in order to avoid a lawsuit by a former employee alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. In exchange for dropping the suit, Dr. Chavis agreed to pay Mary E. Stansel, who worked briefly at NAACP headquarters last year, up to $322,400 from the NAACP treasury. Yet he told neither his general counsel nor his board what he had done, which only became public in July, when Ms. Stansel filed suit alleging he had broken their agreement.

Dr. Chavis apparently has persuaded himself that people opposed to the direction he intended to take the NAACP used the Stansel affair in order to discredit his leadership. In this he is sadly mistaken. Many board members confirmed privately that they thought the organization needed to be shaken up and that it had to reach out to a wider spectrum of the black community in order to maintain its credibility and effectiveness in the post-civil rights era. Dr. Chavis was brought on board precisely for the purpose of doing that. Even his controversial embrace of Louis Farrakhan found strong support both on the board and at the grass-roots level.

What drove the board to dismiss Dr. Chavis was neither his program nor the allegations against him but the the fact that he kept his own organization in the dark regarding matters crucial to its financial stability and moral credibility. In effect, he put his own interest ahead of that of the institution. No leader can do that and hope to be successful. Dr. Chavis is a fighter, and he may yet find a way to make important contributions to the struggle for equal justice for all Americans. But he was the wrong man for the NAACP.

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