The NAACP Needs a New Strategy

October 29, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

One wonders what ousted NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis was thinking of when he sued his former employer for some $300,000 remaining on his three-year

contract.

Last week Dr. Chavis dropped all claims against the NAACP and agreed to repay the $76,000 it lent him to make a down payment on his Ellicott City house. The group will also pay $7,400 to cover two mortgage payments on Dr. Chavis' home and extend his medical benefits through April.

An NAACP source called it a ''total capitulation.'' Dr. Chavis, with his usual talent for twisting the truth, said he dropped his claim ''in hopes that it would minimize the internecine conflict, backbiting and back-stabbing that is too prevalent within the NAACP.'' What a sport.

Now if the NAACP can figure out a graceful way to ease out Board Chairman William F. Gibson, the man who inflicted Dr. Chavis and his mismanagement on it, the organization may be in a position to reclaim its role as the nation's leading voice on civil rights.

But with Dr. Chavis gone, and Dr. Gibson, hopefully, on his way out, the group still must confront the basic problem of formulating a strategy to deal with the pressing problems facing African-Americans today. The national NAACP has been reduced putting out fires on a piecemeal basis rather than coordinating any long-term campaign to attack America's racial ills at their core.

I was reminded of this sad state of affairs recently when Jack Greenberg, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, spoke in Baltimore earlier this month as part of the Johns Hopkins School of Continuing Education's noon lecture series.

Mr. Greenberg, who now teaches at Columbia University Law School, recalled the early days of the movement in the late 1940s and early '50s, when Thurgood Marshall and others were planning the legal assault on segregation through the courts that would lead to the landmark 1954 Brown decision.

NAACP strategists had to make a decision, Mr. Greenberg said, on where to focus their efforts. Some suggested gradually expanding victories already won in desegregating state graduate and professional schools, which the Supreme Court had forced to admit a small number of black applicants in the late '40s.

Others believed the effort should concentrate on opening segregated public colleges and universities to black undergraduates. The number of potential beneficiaries was potentially much larger, they argued, though the legal hurdles also were correspondingly greater.

Finally they could attack public-school segregation at the elementary and high school levels. This was the riskiest strategy of all because it in effect required overturning more than half a century of precedent set by the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which permitted states to provide separate facilities for blacks and whites as long as they were ''equal.''

That was the approach that was eventually adopted. Marshall reasoned that a victory in the public schools not only would undermine the legal underpinnings of segregation in the South but also would embolden blacks across the country to rise up and demand full equality in every sphere of American life.

The NAACP today would do well to take this lesson from its past to heart. It cannot hope to solve all the problems facing black Americans today. Like a general marshaling his army, it must obey the principle of economy of force, concentrating its effort where a breakthrough will yield the greatest strategic advantage.

After his ouster, Dr. Chavis complained his enemies had conspired against him because they opposed the direction he was leading the organization. In fact, the NAACP under Dr. Chavis was a rudderless ship borne aimlessly along by shifting currents of factional strife and diverted at every turn by gusts of self-serving publicity.

Dr. Chavis claimed his goal was black ''unity,'' but he never explained what that unity was supposed to achieve. He ended up simply confusing tactics with strategy.

If the NAACP is to again become a national force for justice and equality in American life it must regain the clear sense of purpose that animated it during the great years of the civil-rights movement. The problems facing black Americans are different today than in the past and require a different strategy for their solution. That's what the NAACP needs to come up with now, as soon as it finishes cleaning house.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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