from the pages of
The Rise and Demise
of Ben Chavis at the NAACP
The news that Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis had been selected as the new Executive Director of the NAACP, the oldest and largest civil rights organization, was greeted with great expectancy by many within the National African American community and the progressive movement. There were great expectations for Ben Chavis as head of the NAACP because he came to the position with a long history as a progressive activist. This mood of expectancy was re-enforced when Chavis selected as his top aides Don Rojas, former Director of Communications for the People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada under Maurice Bishop and Lewis Myers Jr., a progressive activist and attorney and former legal adviser to Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Casting himself in the mold of W.E.B. Dubois, a founder of the NAACP, Ben Chavis sought to re-energize and redirect an organization which had been moribund for years; an Association whose approach and agenda was largely out of touch with plight and aspirations of the masses of Black poor and working people and Black youth. Therefore the move to redirect the NAACP with its membership of 475,000 and a base of 2,200 branches was an important undertaking with the potential of reinvigoring the Black freedom movement and the broader struggle for social justice and social change in the U.S.
As the very first act of his administration Ben Chavis went directly to the "hood" in Los Angeles to await the verdict in the second Rodney King beating trial. For nearly a week Chavis lived in a housing development and interfaced with poor and working people, Black youth and gang members in the hood. Symbolically and substantively this act signalled that, under Ben Chavis, an organization which had been viewed as the exclusive preserve of the Black middle class would now address the concerns of the Black masses--poor and workinq people and Black youth.
Chavis loss no time in launching a number critical initiatives: he sought to address the crisis of crime in violence in the Black community by identifying with the Gang Peace process which spawned the Urban Peace and Social Justice Movement; he appealed directly to Black youth to join the NAACP on a massive scale as an avenue to fight for a change in the condition of the Black masses; with the signing of a multi-million dollar economic covenant with the Denny's, corporate America was put on notice that the $350--$400 billion Black consumer dollar would be utilized to advance the economic interests of Black America; Chavis also stressed the need for Black people to harness their resources to create a more viable economic infra-structure in the Black community; his focus on environmental racism also became a part of the new direction for the NAACP as local chapters began to be directly involved in the environmental justice movement; and, seeking to redefine the nature and scope of "civil rights" into the 21st century, in an unprecedented move by the NAACP, Lewis Myers, Deputy Director of NAACP, was assigned to develop a coalition with the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild and other progressive civil rights advocacy agencies to develop and new human rights/civil rights agenda.
By far the most crucial and controversial initiative launched by Ben Chavis, however, was the effort to build greater unity among the diverse organizations, agencies and leadership within Black America. From the outset Chavis made it clear that he would reach out to sectors of the Black community traditionally ignored by the NAACP e.g., rapactivist, gang leaders, nationalists, pan-africanists and the Black left. Chavis argued that the process of building unity in the Black community should embrace every important sector of Black America including the Nation of Islam and Minister Louis Farrakhan. Hence, over the objection of some inside the NAACP and powerful forces external to the NAACP and the Black community, Minister Farrakhan was invited to sit at the table with other leaders at the National African American Leadership Summit which Ben Chavis convened under the auspices of the NAACP.
With a growing tide of nationalist sentiment sweeping Black America, the images of Black leaders standing in unity at the Summit sparked great hope among Black people of all walks of life. However, the site of Farrakhan, who has been consistently accused of engaging in anti-semitic behavior, sitting at the table with other African American leaders sent shock waves through much of the Jewish community and other traditional bases of support for the NAACP. Indeed, Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, led a small band of pickets to Baltimore to protest the inclusion of Farrakhan in the Summit; an act which was viewed as an infringement on the right of selfdetermination by many within the Black community.
There is little doubt that the vision and programmatic thrust of Ben Chavis breathed new life into the NAACP and sparked renewed interest in the Black freedom struggle. The membership of the NAACP swelled dramatically from about 475,000 to 650,000 during Chavis's brief 16 month tenure. More than 60 percent of the new members were African American youth. People who had long since given up on the NAACP as an outdated organization reassessed their position and joined the Association. In my judgement, the NAACP under the leadership of Chavis, Myers and Rojas was on the verge of igniting a new human rights/civil rights movement to finish the unfinished agenda of the civil rights movement of the `1960s; a movement which for differing reasons was viewed as frightening by powerful forces external to the Black community.
Actually, the campaign to unseat Ben Chavis began within weeks of his selection as Executive Director. It did not take long for the major news organizations to discover and report that the top leadership of the NAACP included two dangerous lefties in the persons of Myers and Rojas. Myers also came under attack because of his role as a former legal advisor and confidant of Minister Farrakhan. It became clear almost immediately that many of the foundations and corporations which provided nearly 40 percent of the NAACP's annual budget were quite concerned about the prospects of a different kind of NAACP under the leadership of Chavis, Myers and Rojas. Hardly a month went by without some red baiting or magnification of the Associations debt in the news medla .
With Chavis's popularity growing within Black America, however, the new regime was able to beat back every major assault from within and outside of the Association<193>for a time. Early on there were signs that forecast the demise of Ben Chavis as head of the NAACP. While there is no question in my mind that Chavis was fired because of the political direction which he was unfolding, there were also contradictions and critical errors which contributed to his downfall; errors which his adversaries inside and outside of the NAACP were able to use to orchestrate his ouster.
Ben Chavis's first critical error was the failure to consolidate his base of support within the progressive activist movement across the country. The task of transforming the NAACP was much too big for Chavis, Myers and Rojas to carry out alone. Repeatedly key activists suggested that Chavis form a kind of shadow cabinet of advisors to help him think through strategy and tactics and assist in mobilizing support for his initiatives. By and large Chavis failed to heed this advice. Not only did he fail to heed this advice, key allies from across the country chronically complained about Chavis's inaccessibility. This lack of a consultative, collaborative and collective leadership style also proved harmful inside the structure of the NAACP where branch presidents and other leaders of the Association found it difficult to establish a consistent line of communications with Chavis.
Chavis's non-stop, in motion, whirlwind style of leadership also had a positive and negative side. While his constant movement around the country did have the effect of stirring the masses, his overemphasis on this approach cost him dearly in terms of winning the allegiance of the bureaucracy within the NAACP. He never stopped long enough to endear himself to the administrative apparatus or to master the day to day operations of the Association. In fact there were moles on the staff who were consciously collaborating with his adversaries to bring him down. Chavis's chronic absence from the office made it difficult for him to neutralize the intrique and internal staff opposition.
At least one key constituency inside the association that should have been allied with Chavis was also alienated--labor. The allegation that Chavis quietly lobbied for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in spite of a national convention resolution opposing NAFTA, infuriated Bill Lucy, President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist and a NAACP national board member. The Black trade unionist within the Association are generally counted on to deliver large financial contributions from their respective international unions. Given the NAACP's rather substantial deficit, the alienation of the Black trade union constituency proved to be a major mistake.
Outside of the NAACP, Chavis also upset many within the environmental justice movement when he entered into a semi-secret dialogue with the Alliance for Superfund Authorization Project which consists of some of the biggest polluters in the country. Over the objection of key allies within environmental justice movement, Chavis agreed to lobby Congress for the inclusion of provisions in the Superfund Authorization Act which would have reduced the liability of major polluters for the clean up of contaminated sites. Chavis's attitude towards labor and the environmental justice movement flew in the face of his credentials as a progressive and cost him valuable support in the battle to retain his position within the NAACP.
The biggest mistake of all, however, was the out of court settlement reached with Mary Stansel, Chavis's former Executive Assistant. To enter into an agreement of this magnitude (a possible $350,000) without consulting the General Counsel or board of the NAACP and against the advice of his top aides was a colossal error of judgement. The secret settlement gave the appearance of using the "people's" funds to pay hush money for personal misconduct. This error in judgement was compounded by the fact that Chavis refused to take responsibility for his actions and admit to an error of judgement in this matter. It was the settlement with Stensil, more than any other mistake, that was seized upon to get rid of Ben Chavis and his leftist aides/associates.
Perhaps, it was too much to hope that an organization that had expelled W.E.B. Dubois sixty years ago could be transformed to play a more vital role in the Black freedom movement and the struggle for social change. What is indisputable is that Black America was responding to the new direction of the NAACP with great hope and expectancy. The lesson to be learned from the tragic demise of Ben Chavis at the NAACP is that when one embarks on an undertaking of this magnitude it can never be seen as an heroic solo act. In must be viewed as part of a process in which there is collective leadership and constant consultation and collaboration with key allies and supporters. The failure to do so is not only to invite personal disaster but to frustrate the aspirations of the people thereby contributing to cynicism, apathy and despair. The Black masses are the big losers in this unfortunate episode in the history of the Black freedom struggle.