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NAACP Ousts Chavis

Promise + Strategic Errors + Tactical Mistakes + Ardent Opposition + Inadequate Support + Personal Weakness [?] + Naiveté = Failure & Disappointment

In Meanderings 1.06, we discussed Rev. Benjamin Chavis' efforts to change the direction of the NAACP and the efforts of board members and people outside of the organization to oust Chavis from his position of leadership. Obviously a lot has happened since that time including his ouster by the Board. While the entire previous issue was devoted to this topic, it is appropriate to tie up a few loose ends.

Meanderings 1.06 described in some detail the efforts of many parties to have Chavis removed or, at least, reined in. These efforts were primarily directed at Chavis' direction of NAACP policy, including the involvement of Min. Louis Farrakhan and other black "radicals" in the National African American Leadership Summit. There were pointed accusations that Chavis was turning the NAACP into a separatist organization and turning it away from its middle-class, integrationist roots. To be sure, there were also complaints about Chavis' management of the organization and its money, including a large deficit that was or wasn't there at the start of his tenure, depending on who you believe. There were also complaints that Chavis did not seek or get needed Board approval of some of the policies he wished to pursue, including the overtures to Farrakhan.

At the time, the complaints about his management of the organization seemed designed to provide cover for opposition to Chavis' substantive goals. However, in the end, it was the management stuff that did him in. While the political opposition was real, Chavis made a number of mistakes that provided all of the rationale needed for his ouster. In that way, although his leadership of the NAACP brought about a lot of hope for needed changes in the NAACP and the entire leadership of the black political and civil rights organizations, Chavis' leadership failed, and failed miserably.

Clearly, one of his major mistakes was relying on Dr. William Gibson, the NAACP Board Chairman, to "stand and deliver" the Board and its votes at critical junctures. Chavis apparently felt that, as long as he had Gibson in his corner, he was free to pursue the policies he desired. By placing too much reliance on Gibson, Chavis failed to develop his own strong personal relationships with the Board. He needed to expand his base if he was to achieve his objectives. If his goals had been non-controversial and status quo-oriented, his methods might have been successful. However, his program was far more radical than the NAACP was used to, and things always change. People die. They move on. They also change their positions, as Gibson ultimately did with respect to Chavis. Having failed to develop the broader base of support he ultimately needed just to survive, not to mention effectively manage change in such an organization, Chavis was left to fend for himself. It has been said that the most important job any CEO has is managing relationships with his or her board of directors. Chavis didn't learn that lesson and paid the price. Of course, cultivating the Board might have slowed his agenda, but such cultivation was necessary. The price of pursuing his agenda without doing so was the termination of that agenda.

Another mistake Chavis made concerns missteps with regard to the organization's money. Was he responsible for the growing deficit? Depends on who you talk to. Did he have the authority to settle the lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination? Again, it depends. How about the talk of limousines and hotel suites and expensive foreign travel? Not to mention other charges of sexual misconduct. Do you see a pattern here? I do. All this stuff looks bad! It's called perception, and in this media-highlighted era, perceptions need to be effectively managed, regardless of where the truth actually lies. By not managing those perceptions and by not making sure that there were no targets made available to the inevitable opposition, again, Chavis failed.

This failure is all the more glaring in light of some of his comments since the ouster. For example, Chavis had the following to say in an interview in November's Vibe Magazine:

"Leadership means having the courage to articulate the interests of one's people. Without fear of retribution. Without fear of even the loss of life. Most of our real leaders are probably wandering around in a park like this, you know, because they're pushed out of the established movement. The established movement is looking for people who can compromise. They're looking for people who can make the oppressor think that we will never be defiant. I was told a long time ago, 'Hey, man, if you reach out to Minister Farrakhan, they're going to bring you down.' And I said, 'Hey, this brother is a leader. And if somebody is going to bring me down because I'm reaching out to another leader, then so be it.'

" . . . There were multiple conspiracies that said, 'We're going to take Chavis down at all costs.' I underestimated the way these forces would move against me. There was a media campaign. When I started reaching out to Farrakhan, right-wing Jewish organizations came after us. Conservative blacks came after us. Reactionary forces in organized labor came after us. There are forces in our society that don't want to see black people come together. For people who profit off putting people in jail, the thought that black folks will stop going to jail is very threatening. We're talking about owning our own businesses. We're talking about owning our own record companies. Owning our own television stations. Owning our own magazines. And that's very threatening." [p. 70]

The problem is, Chavis knew there was a conspiracy and had been warned. Even I knew he was facing strong and concerted opposition because it was all played out right in the mainstream press from the outset of his selection as Executive Director. Yet his actions imply that he didn't see the opposition as a real threat. Furthermore, you have to question his conception of leadership. In 1994, it takes more to being a leader than standing up and articulating interests. Sure that is part of it but it certainly ain't enough. Which is not to say that we have many black leaders who articulate interests very clearly. [Note: See "Gates on Black Leadership" in this issue.] And reaching out to a Farrakhan, as I've written before, may be an example of and require leadership, but, in the end it alone does not accomplish much, especially if you're on the outside looking in as Chavis is now. Furthermore, and this is not a popular thing to say, but leadership requires the ability to make decisions, to recognize when to fight and when to compromise, and when to come back and fight another day. Especially in an organization like the NAACP. You don't get elected one day and assume the organization's position is now, ipso facto, in synch with your position. Doesn't it make sense to build coalitions and try to move the organization along over time? Finally, Chavis eschews compromise and talks of the "oppressor." While there clearly is oppression at work, there is also a fair amount of the plight facing black folks that has been caused by us and is our responsibility to fix.

Women and the Civil Rights Movement

The sexual discrimination lawsuit is difficult to deal with because we don't have the facts. Was it a mistake or worse on Chavis' part or merely a way for Mary Stansel to cash in? Doesn't matter. What matters, in the end, is that it was handled very, very poorly. Perceptions again! There is an aspect to this story that is unsettling and troubling precisely because a lot of allegations have been flung and we're in no position to know the truth. It has become a kind of multiple "He said -- She said", except the only "he" involved is Ben Chavis. As an example, on October 8, 1994, The New York Amsterdam News published a column entitled, "Betrayal -- the case against Ben Chavis," written by its Media Editor, Abiola Sinclair, which began like this:

"Ben Chavis was dismissed from his post as executive director of the NAACP, August 20 of 1994, reportedly because of a scandal involving NAACP funds, Mary Stansel, a hired aide, and supposed volatile affiliations with the Minister Louis Farrakhan.

". . . The time has come for at least a partial airing of the truth. The truth about Ben Chavis and how he shot himself not only in the foot but literally gutted the opportunity of a lifetime and the hopes and aspirations of so very many people, due to lust of Biblical proportions, total irresponsibility, and lack of genuine commitment to the monumental task he himself designed.

"In the 16 months he headed the NAACP, it is said by insiders that he turned the national office into a stud farm, and was the architect of in-office dramatic scenarios right out of drug store novels and soap operas. Sources claim he encouraged women to fight over him in the office, thus disrupting the office routines. He allegedly had several mistresses among the staff he hired, and allowed his wife to be constantly insulted by these women, among them Stansel." [page 3]

I must confess that I do not read this paper on a regular basis, so I don't know if it is just another incendiary tabloid. Needless to say I was shocked by what I read, and I can tell you Sinclair's article gets a lot worse and a lot more descriptive than the above quote. Again, is this the truth? Who knows? But it certainly demonstrates that Chavis, at best, lost the battle for control of our perceptions, and, at worst, demonstrated behavior which some might overlook were it not for the importance and public profile of the accused.

It also matters that black women, so important as "foot soldiers" in the NAACP and other organizations, churches, etc., are rarely found in leadership positions within those organizations. According to Newsweek, female NAACP members outnumber men nearly 2 to 1 but the board of trustees is 73 percent male and only five of 38 top state conference posts are held by women. The article (Newsweek, September 5, 1994, pp. 35-36) contained the following:

"The legacy of sexual discrimination runs deep in the civil-rights movement. While women like Ida B. Wells (a cofounder of the NAACP), Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer played historic roles in the struggle for equality, they were largely excluded from positions of influence. Their experience reflected the powerlessness of women across all racial lines. But black women, marginalized by both race and gender, were especially vulnerable. The civil-rights leadership, dominated by ministers accustomed to the patriarchy of the black church, kept most of them far from the spotlight. The sting of their isolation was compounded by accounts of womanizing on the part of some movement leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. Other organizations devalued women as well, expecting them to supply sex to leaders -- "drawers for the cause" -- as a matter of course. Elaine Brown, former Black Panther Party chairwoman, wrote in a 1993 memoir that women who dared to assert leadership were considered to be 'eroding black manhood.'"

This is an old story and one wonders about Chavis' approach to these matters. In the Vibe article, he had the following to say:

". . . I think that all forms of discrimination are wrong: racism, sexism, ageism. But I want to say that I think it's a retardant to the African-American struggle for freedom, when sisters and brothers battle each other. Our problem is not gender. Our problem is racism. " [pp. 70-71; emphasis added]

Suggesting that the struggle of black women take a back seat to the struggle against racism is merely another form of patriarchy, this time a black one. It implies that gender issues within the black community, and they are considerable, must wait until the struggle against racism is won. I don't buy it.

A Class Thing

Now this is pure speculation on my part, but one also wonders whether part of the ideological battle at the NAACP results from class differences within black America. Today's NAACP gives the impression, what with Image Awards and corporate sponsorship, of serving the interests of black folks who have made it, are making it, or are on the verge of making it. It suggests an organization designed to serve the needs of the black elite, whose needs are, in many, many ways, very different from the black poor. While the black middle class now represents about 25 percent of all blacks, the remaining 75 percent may be poorer, by comparison, than they have ever been. Chavis, by reaching out to gangs, by living with a family in "the hood" for a time, and by reaching out to the Nation of Islam, was attempting to redirect some of the organization's attention toward the black poor. Was the effort to stop him designed, in part, to keep the NAACP's efforts directed at those areas that could most benefit the middle class (like affirmative action and government contracting)? It's an interesting question.

What's Next for Chavis and the NAACP

Chavis' tenure at the helm of the NAACP provided some hope of better things to come largely as a result of his efforts to bring together the diverse leadership of black America to focus on working cooperatively to achieve common objectives. Because of substantive opposition and major mistakes of judgment and approach, Chavis is no longer in a position to lead the NAACP anywhere. Which means that it is likely the organization will return to it's previous patient and disengaged approach. It also means that the unification effort will peter out as well. I don't know which is the saddest sight I witnessed in the aftermath of Chavis' dismissal: his alternating pose of utter defiance and victimhood in the face of mistakes he clearly made himself or the rag-tag nature of the Leadership Summit session he hosted immediately following his ouster, complete with fringe electoral candidates extolling the virtues of Lyndon LaRouche and going on and on about all of the wonderful things LaRouche has done for black people. The Chavis-led unification effort would have been difficult to pull off anyway, but the events surrounding his departure have probably set back any such effort for years.

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Meanderings 1.07 -- October 25, 1994