Chavis and Mfume: divergent paths

March 12, 1997|By E.R. Shipp

NEW YORK -- Ben Chavis, the fallen civil-rights leader, has made it official: He's not just a sycophant of Louis Farrakhan; he's now a convert to Mr. Farrakhan's brand of Islam.

Or, as Mr. Chavis puts it: ''I am not turning from Christ. I am turning to Allah.''

This former Episcopalian and now former member of the United Church of Christ is now a Muslim whose new name is Benjamin Chavis Muhammad.

It's not surprising, really. Last summer, when Mr. Farrakhan berated black journalists who had invited him to speak at their TC annual convention, Mr. Chavis stood dutifully to the right and slightly behind, looking like an unofficial member of the minister's security detail, the Fruit of Islam.

And as if to convey that Mr. Chavis, the former executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was nothing more than a member of the crew, Mr. Farrakhan never once acknowledged his presence.

"To resurrect our people"

Recently Mr. Chavis Muhammad explained why he moved to an organization as devoutly separatist as the NAACP is integrationist.

''Too many of our people are in prison,'' he told USA Today. ''Too many of our people are on drugs. Too many of our people are on the way to self-destruction. I see the Nation of Islam as a vehicle to resurrect our people from the dead.

''What other organization is taking men and women out of despair and making them upright?''

The answer, Mr. Chavis Muhammad, is that churches across this nation are doing so. As are countless nonprofit organizations that are committed to the poor and to recovering addicts. And in cities like New York, even Mayor Giuliani's workfare program is helping to make men and women ''upright.''

Desperate quest

That Mr. Chavis Muhammad has hitched his wagon to Louis Farrakhan's shows just how desperate he is.

Since losing his way during his 16 months at the helm of the NAACP -- wasting its meager resources, including a sum he agreed to pay off to a woman who'd charged him with sexual harassment -- he has struggled to find the path to the upper echelon of African-American leadership.

Fortunately, while Mr. Chavis Muhammad has been reinventing himself, his successor at the NAACP has been cleaning up the mess left behind.

Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman, has been reinventing the 88-year-old civil-rights organization into a lean, mean fighting machine capable of doing battle on behalf of people of color well into the 21st century.

At the annual NAACP board meeting in New York a few weeks ago, Mr. Mfume announced that he had erased the deficit of about $4 million, had a $2 million surplus and was now launching a five-year, $50 million drive to establish an endowment fund.

Tap the superstars

If black people really want the NAACP around, then raising money to sustain its efforts should be no problem. Sports superstars like Michael Jordan and entertainers like Bill Cosby .. and Oprah Winfrey could easily give $50 million.

Blacks of more modest means can do likewise: If just the 8 million members of the largest black religious denomination -- the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc. -- were to give $5 each, that would be about $40 million.

It's just a matter of will -- and of a sense that the NAACP has a compelling agenda in the post- civil-rights era as articulable as the organization's goals at its inception, when it focused on such issues as the enforcement of voting rights and bringing an end to lynchings and debt slavery.

So far Mr. Mfume is focusing on how African-Americans fare in the American economy and on reaching out to youth, encouraging them to join the NAACP, but more important, encouraging them to strive for excellence.

Under Mr. Mfume, the NAACP seems to be on the right course. The same cannot be said for Mr. Chavis Muhammad.

E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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