Chavis became part of the problem

August 29, 1994|By Salim Muwakkil

THE NAACP looked at its future and it flinched. The group's recently ousted executive director, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., represented the next step in African-Americans' freedom march, despite all his alleged faults. The 46-year-old Dr. Chavis may yet fulfill that leading role, and leave the nation's oldest civil rights organization behind.

An overwhelming number of board members voted to dismiss the controversial Dr. Chavis. Their primary pretext was Dr. Chavis' commitment of $332,400 of the organization's money to settle a sexual discrimination complaint, but the fundamental motive was ideological.

Since assuming leadership in April 1993, Dr. Chavis has been rocking the boat of the 85-year-old organization. In fact, that's why he was named to lead the NAACP. After years of denial, the group's leadership finally acted on long-standing complaints that the NAACP had become irrelevant.

For example, a 1993 Detroit News and Free Press poll found that overwhelming numbers of blacks saw the NAACP as "out of touch" with the most crucial issues affecting them. What's more, 55 percent of the blacks polled said whites have too much influence on the policies of all of the major civil rights groups. And a recent study by University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson reveals a growing tide of African-American support for black nationalist ideas.

That's why Dr. Chavis forged connections with the street gang truce movement, even as his more traditional colleagues recoiled in disgust. He joined in the fight for gay rights as well as for Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, which believes homosexuality is divinely prohibited.

He convened an unprecedented meeting with a diverse group of black intellectual radicals, a segment of the African-American community that has been alienated from the NAACP since the group ousted W.E.B. DuBois in 1934. Dr. Chavis said he was trying to ignite the spirit of defiance and resistance that meant so much to his youth as a community activist.

But Dr. Chavis also was mounting a perilous political campaign. He attempted to merge the two major, but traditionally antagonistic, strains of the black freedom movement: the integrationist and nationalist strains. The risk here is inherent: how do you reconcile diametric opposites for any purpose?

And the risk is external, as well, since the U.S. government historically has tried to sabotage attempts at black unity.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson made a similar attempt at black unity during his first presidential campaign, when he too embraced Mr. Farrakhan. Mr. Jackson immediately gained street credibility while many activists hailed the merging of the disciples of Martin Luther King Jr. and of Malcolm X. But street credibility has its price and Mr. Jackson ultimately had to distance himself from the controversial Nation of Islam leader.

The NAACP's viability depends on its fund-raising capacities, not necessarily on its relevance to the problems afflicting black people. Thus Dr. Chavis' embrace of Mr. Farrakhan hit the group where it hurts worst: its finances. In addition to incurring the wrath of mainstream Jewish organizations, the unlikely NAACP-N.O.I. alliance also startled some of the group's corporate sponsors. The Ford Foundation, for example, reportedly held back $250,000 of a $500,000 grant to the group. Mobil Oil, General Motors and Phillip Morris also expressed reservations about lending their names to the organization's fund-raising efforts.

Dr. Chavis is now suing to regain his position, but if the suit fails, he likely will lead a new group of activists, composed largely of the organizations that attended the second African-American Leadership Summit, which convened in Baltimore the day after his dismissal.

The summits were Dr. Chavis' idea, and the first one took place last June. Mr. Farrakhan's attendance provoked controversy and helped further fuel the antagonism of the NAACP's old guard.

The NAACP canceled the second one, but Dr. Chavis himself reconvened a meeting of some 75 organizations.

Dr. Chavis' rude removal no doubt will resurrect the NAACP's fund-raising abilities with corporate sponsors. But it probably won't do much for the group's declining status in the black community.

Many black people see the group as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Dr. Chavis seemed intent on changing that perception, so he became part of the problem.

Salim Muwakkil is a contributing columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a senior editor of In These Times magazine.

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