And in the end, Ben Chavis still doesn't get it

August 23, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Maybe Benjamin Chavis moves on to greatness from here. Maybe the tangle of loose money and dangling lawsuits are forgotten down the road, and maybe one day the ousted executive director of the NAACP helps heal some of the cancerous wounds of black America.

But as he leaves the NAACP, Chavis still doesn't seem to get it: He embarrassed the nation's most venerable civil rights group in front of the whole country. He took an organization whose history consists of struggling for the high ground, and made it vulnerable. And still he blames his troubles on sinister outside forces, still denies he did anything wrong, and still hasn't figured out the real victim in all of this.

Last Friday, his last full day in office, Chavis stood before a bank of microphones in a packed meeting room at NAACP national headquarters here. There were 14 television crews in the room, network correspondents, still photographers, print reporters.

Chavis answered questions, in his fashion, for the better part of an hour. Answered them, in his fashion, about personal relationships with two women, about missing money, about budgets and boards of directors, about foundation grants and membership figures and media coverage.

Nowhere, in all of this, was there mention of black children who never live under the same roof with two parents. The cycle of poverty, passed from one generation of black families to another, went untouched. The drug traffic which tears at the veins of black America never occurred to anyone, nor did the appalling rate of teen-age pregnancies, the crippling school dropout rate, the self-destruction on a grand scale. The private troubles of Benjamin Chavis consumed everyone.

Maybe he moves on to greatness from here. When his board voted overwhelmingly to fire him and then knocked off for the rest of the weekend, Chavis took his planned national summit elsewhere, to churches in West Baltimore, vowing to continue fighting for "racial justice."

But the words sound hollow. Though the summit moved, most of those invited did not. Chavis gets the cold shoulder from virtually all the prominent civil rights leaders, all except the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan who couldn't have walked away now, not after Chavis defied so many people by embracing Farrakhan months ago.

So there was Chavis Sunday, on Black Entertainment Television's "Lead Story," blaming his ouster on "organized groups . . . some connected with right-wing Jewish groups, some even reactionary African-Americans [who] worked in coalition together to put pressure on the NAACP."

He still doesn't seem to get it. He took office with what is now described as $600,000 in the NAACP's bank account and, in little more than a year, ran up a $3 million debt. He paid big, secret money to one woman who'd sued him and dodged a bullet with another woman who decided to change her story at the last minute. The big foundations, formerly inclined to send money to the NAACP, were backing off. The organization's board members, who have spent their lives struggling for acceptance by the larger, more powerful community, found their entire history of good works threatened.

Does Farrakhan figure in all of this, and the Jews' reaction to him? On some level, yes. Chavis was free to embrace Farrakhan, but also free to face the consequences. Farrakhan conquers by dividing. The NAACP always appealed to people's common humanity. The Jews, thinking they were part of that equation, and historically the biggest white supporters of the NAACP, were hurt and embittered, and said so.

Was Chavis expecting bouquets? He was right to say that no outside group should dictate to the NAACP, but wrong to think there wouldn't be horror over Farrakhan. You offend the very people who have championed your cause, you'd better expect some kind of heat.

And yet Farrakhan became only a side issue in Chavis' demise. What's worse, so did the problems Chavis was hired to face -- the crushing poverty and crime in black America, the breakdown of families, all pushed aside while Chavis tried to bluff his way out of trouble.

Maybe he moves on to greatness from here. Maybe he can pull the various factions together and find high ground somewhere, and put all this personal business behind him. But the thing that killed Chavis was Chavis. Anyone else he blames is just one more bluff.

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