Chavis Was Never Suited to the NAACP

August 26, 1994|By CLAUDE LEWIS

The firing of Benjamin Franklin Chavis from his post as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People this past weekend was hardly a surprise among those familiar with the history of the organization.

Many veteran observers were well aware that Dr. Chavis did not possess the reasoned, contemplative personality usually associated with the NAACP, but he had the support of the powerful board chairman, William Gibson.

Dr. Chavis was considered by those who knew him to be an impatient radical, not given to responding to a board of directors. He preferred taking matters into his own hands.

I have reported on the events of the NAACP for more than a quarter century. I knew Roy Wilkins, who for 22 years was perhaps the organization's most respected leader. I know Benjamin Hooks, who for 17 years guided the NAACP through some of its most troubled times. Dr. Chavis never seemed to me to be suited for the job. He was a round peg in a square hole.

Many believed he was the right man to move the stodgy, out-of-touch NAACP in a new direction. And with Dr. Gibson's support, Dr. Chavis beat out several candidates for the position, including Jesse Jackson, whose reputation, some feared, might overshadow the organization.

To appeal to young blacks, the group most alienated from the NAACP, Dr. Chavis reached out to Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan, whose incendiary rhetoric appeals greatly to many youthful, if innocent, African Americans. But in embracing Farrakhan, Dr. Chavis found immediate opposition in the Jewish community, in corporate board rooms and within the community of foundations where significant financial grants are made to help keep organizations like the NAACP afloat.

In the 17 months that Dr. Chavis led the NAACP, its reputation suffered and its goals became clouded because of Dr. Chavis' free-wheeling style. It made longtime NAACP loyalists uncomfortable and placed doubt about the direction of the organization in the minds of corporate givers such as the Ford Foundation, which held back a NAACP-dedicated $250,000 grant.

More recently, it was learned that Dr. Chavis used thousands in NAACP funds to ward off a sexual harassment suit against him but never bothered to inform the board concerning charges brought by his former assistant, Mary E. Stansel.

For all the 85 years the NAACP has been in existence, the one thing it carefully eschewed was internal controversy. There were differences, of course, but most of them involved policy, not personalities.

Rarely, in the long history of the organization has the independence and the personality of its chief operating officer been a matter of concern. Dr. Chavis remained defiant and determined to have things his way. And last Saturday, at a showdown meeting with the NAACP board, the embattled executive director learned he enjoyed only a modicum of support. After some eight hours of wrangling, in an arduous and explosive meeting, the board voted nearly unanimously to relieve Dr. Chavis of his responsibilities.

In spite of all the trouble he created for the NAACP, including a massive financial deficit, Dr. Chavis was not without gifts. He was right when he said that if the NAACP is going to continue to provide leadership in the civil rights struggle into the next century, it must become more demanding. It must transform its image of a toothless tiger that offers only weak challenges to the status quo.

The NAACP must be known more for its achievements in the fight for minorities instead of for its costly annual conventions that accomplish little. It also must find a way to convince the 30 million potential members who make up the African-American community to provide it with financial support in order to free it of its stifling dependence on corporate America and the foundations that control it.

These are just some of the insightful points Dr. Chavis made during his leadership. They should be valued even if they came from a man who brought disgrace to the NAACP.

Dr. Chavis' biggest mistake was that he believed he could eliminate hatred without struggle. The NAACP's board believes it must struggle to bring an end to hatred.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. The nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization should learn from its recent crisis. If it does, it could become stronger than it has been for some time. The NAACP should accept the best of what Dr. Chavis brought to it during his short, if divisive reign. If it does not, it too may find itself gone after 85 years of noble and historic effort to move blacks into mainstream America.

Claude Lewis is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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