Civil rights activist thrust into spotlight

Mission: The NAACP's interim president is passionate about carrying on the organization's nearly century-old fight against racial discrimination.

December 19, 2004|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

It's not the large shoes of former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume that drives interim President Dennis C. Hayes to work 16-hour days. Rather, a trail of boot prints left in his home 40 years ago by a white city worker pushes him to single-mindedly track acts of racial injustice.

Asked recently to reflect on his decision to devote a life to fighting for civil rights, Hayes, 53 and single, returned to an incident in his childhood in segregated Indianapolis. He was 13, one of nine children raised by his mother, Nadine Hayes, in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. His father, an Army veteran and hotel bellhop, had died of cancer when Dennis was 12.

The deeply religious Mrs. Hayes and her children somehow survived, even thrived, on Mrs. Hayes' low-wage factory job. She was even able to save money to buy a powder-blue carpet, eager for her children to live more comfortably and "move up," as she said last week from Indianapolis.

But no sooner had it been laid over the linoleum then a utility man trudged from the front door through the living room to the meter in the dirt basement, his boots covered in soot, then exited the way he came in.

Like the NAACP itself, Hayes, the longtime general counsel of the nation's oldest civil rights group, is defined by racial conflict. He thrives on it.

So when this reserved man was asked to step in for one of the NAACP's most gregarious presidents, he was emboldened in part by his own history. After all, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People rose to prominence during the same Jim Crow era that marks Hayes' formative years.

Recalling the utility worker today, Hayes' expressive brow is pinched: "In white homes, he would've come to the back, entered through the kitchen and walked across the tile."

It was one of only two times Hayes ever saw his mother cry. The other was at his father's funeral.

"I thought to myself that anything that makes my mother cry has to be something very terrible," Hayes said in his small office at the NAACP's sprawling national headquarters in Baltimore. "The whole notion of race, that one race can think they are better than others, it just seemed to me it was something that needed to be corrected."

In many ways, Dennis Courtland Hayes epitomizes the organization he will lead until Mfume's replacement is hired. When the NAACP recruited him in 1985, righteous indignation had motivated him to open a private law practice in Indianapolis devoted to discrimination cases. His life was given to the cause. Addressing his bachelorhood at middle-age, he says simply, "I'm a career civil rights lawyer."

Since 1990, he's been the NAACP's chief legal counsel, helping guide the organization through the crucible of debt, the scandalous days of fired President Benjamin F. Chavis and the fast celebrity of Mfume. By all accounts, Hayes, a man who prefers to play golf alone, is a star who toils offstage.

"He is very intelligent and articulate and a lawyer's lawyer," said national board member Cora Breckenridge, who, like Hayes, is a graduate of Indiana University.

"I have been around lawyers a lot," said Breckenridge, who is married to one, "and there is a climate of respect among lawyers. ... Mr. Hayes has that respect."

Some board members suggest that Hayes should be Mfume's permanent replacement, but when asked about it, Hayes insisted he doesn't want the job. But a hitch can be detected in his answer.

"I'm happy in the legal department; we do important work," he said, then added: "I have always been a team player ... and I am happy to do whatever works for the association."

During a 90-minute interview with The Sun, Hayes frequently drew on old wrongs as if they were scores yet to be settled. Clearly this is the kindling that fires him. In his eyes, black society faces nearly identical problems today as it did in the 1950s when an Indianapolis fairground denied him entry and a vendor refused to sell him a nickel bag of popcorn.

"Our mission remains the same: to eliminate race prejudice and discrimination in our country in order to achieve, for people of color - particularly African-Americans - first-class citizenship," he said, speaking rapidly, as if reading from a script. "The problems are the same as when the NAACP was founded in 1909. We've made some achievements, and in some areas we've lost ground."

This year, Hayes and the NAACP claimed victory when the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain agreed to an $8.7 million settlement in a discrimination lawsuit. The NAACP was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Hayes has also steered cases against the state of Florida for voting irregularities in the 2000 presidential election, and the Adam's Mark hotel chain. His fingerprints are on all significant NAACP litigation during the last 14 years.

It's no wonder he peppers conversations of race with references to "white supremacy" and speaks in terms that sound dated to Jim Crow. Of course he bristles at that characterization.

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