A Leader in Search of a Constituency?

September 11, 1994|By MICHAEL A. FLETCHER

On Labor Day, deposed NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. marched shoulder-to- shoulder with a gaggle of New York politicians as they led the West Indian Day Parade past more than a million potential supporters in the heart of Brooklyn.

And, like the politicians, Dr. Chavis was campaigning. Since being fired last month as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for secretly agreeing to pay a former employee up to $332,000 of the organization's money to avert a sexual discrimination suit, he has been in grave danger of becoming a leader in search of a constituency.

The visit to the New York parade, one of the largest gatherings of African-Americans to be found anywhere in the country, was part of a larger, self-proclaimed "victory tour" Dr. Chavis has embarked upon. The tour, which was scheduled to take him to a total of 15 cities, is part of Dr. Chavis' effort to build support and carve out a place for himself as a first-rank civil rights leader.

Certainly, Dr. Chavis has been something of a national figure since being named by Amnesty International as a political prisoner for his role as leader of the Wilmington 10, a group of North Carolina activists who were convicted and imprisoned on arson and conspiracy charges in the early 1970s on the basis of falsified evidence. (The conviction was later overturned).

But his first prolonged exposure to the masses of black people came when he was selected to run the NAACP and took some bold moves to point it in a new direction. Dr. Chavis turned heads and mostly won approval from black folks by meeting with "gangsta" rappers, gang leaders, members of the Nation of Islam and other African-American leaders previously considered too left-leaning or militant to deal with the NAACP.

Dr. Chavis' actions may have roiled staunch integrationists and some corporate NAACP supporters, but they offered exactly what many people talked about when they said that the NAACP needed to update its image.

But the problem was that other than to say he met with those individuals and groups, what could Dr. Chavis claim as his success? And if he was turning off old NAACP supporters with his new thrust, who would replace them?

Stripped of the power and prestige of his NAACP post, Dr. Chavis now faces the possibility of becoming a fringe leader unless he can find a new, credible platform for his ideas. Thus, he is making his tour while what he calls his "crucifixion" at the hands of the NAACP board is still fresh in the public's mind.

Dr. Chavis is campaigning in the name of the National African-American Leadership Summit, a meeting of black organizations that he fostered during his 17 months at the helm of the NAACP. The summit has a laudable, if elusive, goal: to bring together the scores of African-American professional, fraternal and religious organizations and intellectuals in an effort to come up with a prescription for what ails black America.

But one problem with the summit from the beginning has been that much of the established black leadership has not signed on. For instance, black conservatives and elected officials were scarce at the first meeting. Also, the entire gathering was overshadowed by the flap over the attendance of Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan. Many people said that Minister Farrakhan should not have been invited to the summit, saying that an embrace from the NAACP would give mainstream certification to his anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The second meeting of the summit came just hours after Dr. Chavis was removed from his NAACP post. And while more than 100 leaders attended the Baltimore gathering, many of the conferees could claim only small followings, and a big share of them were from Baltimore.

But none of this stopped Dr. Chavis from declaring victory. He called the meeting a "resounding success" because it demonstrated, as he has said many times, that "never again will we allow forces external to our community to divide us or dictate to us."

Dr. Chavis promised that the summit would meet again, in Chicago beginning Dec. 10. There also are plans for a youth summit to discuss the problems faced by black young people.

The summit produced some recommendations, but most of them sounded vague or like ideas offered before. Among them: convening a wellness conference, developing a forum and format "for resolving differences among us," establishing an African-American development fund and coming up with a "strategy for holding corporations accountable to the $400 billion black consumer market."

So far, that is the fruit of the two summits. Clearly, much work lies ahead for Dr. Chavis if he wants to mold that into his national platform.

And while Dr. Chavis' plans for continued summits have the distinct look of of a new organization in the making (the leadership summit has taken up residence in donated office space in Washington), he has been careful to say that new organizations are the last thing the black community needs. Instead, he calls his efforts part of "a movement."

"The question we face is whether those of us in national organizations will stay the course until the credibility of this new course is established," said H. T. Smith, president of the 16,000-member National Bar Association and a strong supporter Dr. Chavis. "That's a challenge, because people are skeptical of new directions and new organizations."

Michael Fletcher is a Washington correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

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