The Times' question -- "Where is the N.A.A.C.P. headed under Benjamin Chavis?" -- is, in fact, an appropriate question. It is also being asked a lot these days. Chavis was elected as NAACP executive director after Ben Hooks' fifteen-year tenure ended in March 1993. Hooks had kept the organization on its traditional course, but apparently the board was looking for more dynamic leadership and new approaches to problems facing the black community. The selection process was fairly contentious, with Chavis competing for the job against Jesse Jackson and others. Jackson was widely reported by the mainstream media to be the likely winner, but he withdrew his candidacy (apparently when it was clear he didn't have sufficient support to win). Chavis received support of a majority of the board, but his activist background was more confrontational and direct than old-time civil rights warriors were used to. It should not be surprising that some significant differences in opinion existed and remain over the proper direction of the organization. One wonders if the board got more than it bargained for and whether Chavis' changes in direction appropriate for the NAACP.
Rapprochement with Farrakhan is, by far, the most controversial element of Chavis' tenure. As reported in Issue 1.04, Chavis was previously criticized for hosting a "secret" meeting attended by noted black "radicals", including Alton H. Maddox, Esq., Maulana Ron Karenga, Angela Davis, Muhammad Toure (Stokely Carmichael), Lenora B. Fulani, Rev. Calvin Butts, Cornel West, Sister Souljah, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
The invitation Chavis sent out regarding this meeting said part of the "mission of the Chavis Administration and the African-centered, self-determined program thrust of the 'New NAACP' the organization would seek ties with 'nationalists' and 'pan-Africanists.'", making Chavis a target of both some NAACP board members and others, particularly the Anti Defamation League ("ADL"), who don't want to see the NAACP move to the "left". Since some of the criticism from board members was a result of their not being informed sufficiently before the meeting took place, it is clear that Chavis has, at the least, made some political mistakes with his own board. But the criticisms go a lot further than that as shown in the following quote from the New York Times:
"Beyond their not being informed, some board members said they considered several of those invited as examples of out-of-date extremists whose presence could sap the N.A.A.C.P. of political credibility, especially coming so soon after Mr. Chavis's call in February for a meeting of prominent blacks that would include Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam.
"'On one hand, here we have the embracing of Louis Farrakhan, which in itself was an extreme move,' said Joe Madison, a board member and a Washington radio talk shoe host. 'Now, a secret meeting with a confidential letter and list of these old radicals of a bygone era who are invited. We have to be about raising money and funding programs for people who are in need of help and depend on the N.A.A.C.P.'
"Mr. Madison went on: 'It's as if Ben Chavis has handed the conservative right of this country a hand grenade and pulled the pin himself. This is all they need to heap criticism on us and the programs that we have been involved in."
To be sure, Chavis was under attack before the meetings in question occurred. The January issue of Commentary contains an article by Arch Puddington entitled "The NAACP Turns Left". Puddington details an extensive list of perceived failings in Chavis, "whose career as an activist and writer personifies precisely the mindset [in black leadership] that needs to be overcome." He specifically disdains "civil-disobedience tactics" (which were central to the success of the civil-rights movement but which were not sponsored by the NAACP) and longs for the "shrewd leadership under the late Roy Wilkins and a membership based firmly in the black middle class."
In addition to inferring that Chavis is a communist, an anti-Semite, is anti-Israel, etc., he says with respect to Chavis' activist background:
"These views, voiced rather freely right up until his assumption of the NAACP post, bear close scrutiny; they reflect a vision of America that is far more pessimistic and hostile than that shared by earlier mainstream civil-rights leaders, and far more akin to the positions taken by extremist organizations of the 60's -- the very positions that have done so much to polarize and cripple race relations in this country."
"In sum, the true significance of Chavis's agenda is this: under his leadership, the NAACP, historically the most mainstream and biracial civil-rights organization, now espouses a position once held only by the most radical organizations and personalities within the black community."
Finally, in the clearest statement of the opposition to Chavis:
"About the past the record is clear: America in Chavis's view was a society in which racial (as well as class and gender) injustice was deliberately built into the basic economic and political institutions. ... And as for today, now that he has reached a position of power and respect in this supposedly oppressive society, he has proceeded to launch initiatives in line with his past analysis.
"That these initiatives can help to work an improvement in our racial climate, or contribute to the advancement of America's most impoverished and crisis-ridden people, is, to say the least, highly unlikely. Far more likely is it that they will exacerbate divisions between the races, enhance the already inflamed sense of black victimization, and lead us backward from the hopeful direction signaled by Bill Clinton in Memphis". [referring to Clinton's speech on black violence and crime in November 1993]
The fact is Chavis' background is more radical, more confrontational, than has been the NAACP's custom in the past. While there are few African Americans who would disagree with Chavis' views as summarized by Puddington above, it is equally clear that there are elements both within the NAACP and outside of it who would like to see the organization remain true to its non-militant heritage. To some extent, then, this discussion represents a battle for the soul of the organization between the old and new guards, those who want the NAACP to continue its historic mission versus those who want to take it in a somewhat different direction.
We'll have to wait to find out how the NAACP under Chavis evolves, but we'll find out about whether Chavis survives as Executive Director at the upcoming Annual Convention as certain board members are reportedly seeking his ouster, including Michael Myers, head of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Hazel Dukes, Joe Madison. Chavis' opponents have a natural ally in the mainstream press, judging by some of the headlines from recent news articles:
Uncharted Change at the NAACP (NYT, 4/16)
Controversy still pursues NAACP's new director (Newsday, 4/17)
Civil Unrest: Under Ben Chavis, The NAACP Is Facing A Crisis, Some Assert, They Question Spending, And His Active Embrace of Radical Black Leaders (WSJ, 6/10)
Identity Crisis (NYT Op-Ed piece by Jack Greenberg, 5/23)
Farrakhan's Presence Mires Black Summit in Controversy (AP, 6/11)
A Bridge Too Far? Benjamin Chavis -- To help revive the N.A.A.C.P., its leader has reached out to Louis Farrakhan -- and risked the support of the organization's moderate core. (NYT Magazine, 6/12)
Focus is on Farrakhan at NAACP Meeting (SJ Mercury News, 6/13)
Supping With the Bigot (A.M. Rosenthal, NYT Op-Ed, 6/14)
The NAACP flap is about direction. It's about politics. It's about money. Ultimately it's about control, whether by the old guard or the new breed within the NAACP. Whether by black, white and Jewish moderates or by black progressives (or radicals, depending on your point of view). But it's important to note this distinction. The NAACP is an organization, ostensibly governed by its board of directors, while the NAACP is only one of many organizations participating in the Leadership Summit. Even though Chavis played the leading role in organizing the Summit and the NAACP played host, one should ask if the Summit process continues even if more conservative elements of the NAACP are successful in "reigning in" Chavis or blocking NAACP participation entirely. I certainly hope so.
There is some debate about whether Chavis has, in fact, reinvigorated the NAACP by bringing in a lot of new, younger members. Chavis thinks he has. Some of the opposition thinks he hasn't, particularly Joe Madison. Clearly the flap over Farrakhan may cost the NAACP some donations from corporations and white and Jewish benefactors. There is at least some speculation that if the dealings with Farrakhan cause support to be pulled back from the organization, "the black community would have to pick up the slack, and this would give the organization even more freedom to do as it sees fit."
That won't help black-Jewish relations much, however. Abraham Foxman, head of the ADL has been quoted as saying that once "black became beautiful, everything else became ugly ... Some of the leadership (of the NAACP) now are products of that environment." Foxman reiterated that the ADL and NAACP were on good terms, but he also said that Chavis' new NAACP consisted of an 'all-star team of the radical left and fringe element...The fringe never has been successful with dealing with real people." He also observed "Civil rights [has] become a contest of 'I will speak out against my racists only if you speak out against yours.'" [Foxman quotes from "The Sacred Covenant" by Cameron Humphries, Diversity & Division: A Critical Journal of Race and Culture, Spring/Summer 1994 ("Humphries")]
Bottom line: With respect to the NAACP itself, this is a battle over what the goals and methods of the NAACP will be going forward, and, to some extent, whether the NAACP will have more relevance to most black folks than the annual Image Awards television program. The effort at summitry is of even greater potential import, in my opinion.