Chavis self-destructs

August 23, 1994

Firing the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. as executive director of the NAACP was the only course left for the venerable civil rights organization when its board of directors met Saturday night. Dr. Chavis clearly had become a liability and a burden to the group he headed. Having embroiled himself in controversy over his financial mismanagement of the organization and charges of sexual harassment and discrimination, the issue of his personal integrity overrode all other questions, including the new direction he had set for the NAACP. He blamed unnamed "forces outside the African-American community" for his problems, but in fact his downfall was 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 persuaded himself that people opposed to the direction he intended to take the NAACP used the Stansel affair to discredit his leadership. He could not be more wrong.

Many board members conceded privately that the organization needed to be shaken up and that the NAACP had to reach out to a broader spectrum of the black community if it was to maintain its credibility and effectiveness in the post-civil rights era. Dr. Chavis was hired to do precisely 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 politics nor the allegations of former female employees but the fact that he kept his own organization in the dark regarding matters crucial to its financial stability and moral credibility. He put his own interest ahead of that of the institution, which no leader can do 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 to lead the NAACP.

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