Ex-NAACP official finds a new destiny Promotion appears to put him in line to succeed Farrakhan

November 29, 1997|By JOE MATTHEWS | JOE MATTHEWS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- Three years after he was dismissed as executive director of the NAACP, Ben Chavis has emerged as the second most powerful figure in the Nation of Islam -- and as a likely successor to Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Last week, Farrakhan cemented the position of Chavis -- now known as Minister Benjamin F. Muhammad -- by putting him in charge of the black Muslim organization's most famous East Coast ministry: Muhammad's Mosque No. 7 in Harlem. In a speech on 127th Street, Farrakhan also said Muhammad would supervise all Nation of Islam mosques from Massachusetts to North Carolina, including the one in Baltimore.

"This is an important time: The Nation of Islam is growing, expanding and evolving," says Muhammad, who continued to live in the Baltimore area even after his firing from the civil rights organization. "I'm in the process now of moving my family from Baltimore to New York."

Muhammad, who was trained as a minister in the United Church of Christ, converted to Islam in February and began serving as a special assistant to Farrakhan earlier this fall. Farrakhan assigned Muhammad to assist operations at Mosque No. 7, a landmark that was the mosque of Malcolm X before he left the Nation of Islam in a dispute with founder Elijah Muhammad.

Longtime Nation of Islam watchers say Benjamin Muhammad's appointment is a strong indication that Farrakhan is grooming the former United Church of Christ minister to take his place one day. The promotion is also seen as an endorsement of Muhammad's calls for a more moderate Muslim movement that has, in his oft-repeated phrase, "most favored Nation status."

"The position in Harlem gives him immense leverage within the Nation of Islam," says Arthur Magida, author of the Farrakhan biography "Prophet of Rage." "One failing of the Nation of Islam under Farrakhan is that there is no built-in line of succession. But this indicates that Minister Farrakhan is searching for someone to succeed him."

Chavis first came to public attention in the early 1970s in North Carolina, where he was jailed for four years in connection with the firebombing of a store. The conviction was overturned, and Chavis earned a reputation as a civil rights activist, culminating in his selection as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1993.

But Chavis came under fire from NAACP board members on two fronts: for establishing close ties to the Nation of Islam and for secretly agreeing to divert $332,400 from the NAACP to pay an aide who had accused him of sexual harassment. In August 1994, he was fired after only 16 months on the job.

After his termination, his relationship with Farrakhan grew closer. Chavis was the national director of the Million Man March in October 1995. And this year, on Feb. 23, the birthday of Elijah Muhammad, Chavis converted to Islam and was made a minister in the Nation.

"My goals are the goals of Honorable Founder Elijah Muhammad, as taught by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan: to seek the redemption and liberation of our people and communities throughout the United States," Benjamin Muhammad says.

Shortly after his conversion, Muhammad began a four-month National Revival Tour across the country. During the tour, Muhammad spent much of his time in America's poorest neighborhoods, where he visited with gang members and slept on couches in the projects. This fall, Muhammad actively promoted the Day of Absence. On that day, Oct. 16, African-American men were urged to refrain from work and shopping in order to demonstrate their economic power.

The Day of Absence made an impact in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. But it fell flat in New York, and Farrakhan became increasingly disenchanted with Mosque No. 7, according to Nation of Islam sources. Earlier this year, he had removed Conrad Muhammad, and he decided this fall that Conrad's replacement, Kevin Muhammad, was too low-key.

"Louis Farrakhan has found a durable partner in Minister Benjamin Muhammad, and vice versa," says Magida, the author. "Chavis' adventures in the NAACP tarnished and tainted him in some eyes. But Farrakhan believes this is someone who can speak with ferocity about the evils and misdeeds he sees in the world."

While complaints about Farrakhan's anti-Semitic statements are well-known, the pressing political problems for Farrakhan and Muhammad come from inside the Nation of Islam. More traditional Nation members have taken to denouncing Muhammad. They see his rise as a troubling example of Farrakhan's growing moderation and a weakening of the Nation's historic intolerance for other religions and races.

These conservatives point to Muhammad's statement that he is "not turning away from Christ but turning to Allah" as proof that his conversion is not total. (The United Church of Christ, however, has suspended him). And they note that Farrakhan, in the Harlem speech last week, announced that women will be permitted to head the group's mosques.

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