The Firing of Ben Chavis
— Malik Miah
WHAT EXPLAINS THE firing of Rev. Benjamin Chavis as executive director of the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country? On the job for less than seventeen months, Chavis was summarily booted out by the NAACP's board of directors on August 20 -- the first time in the NAACP's history that an executive director had been terminated.
Along with Chavis, three of his closest aides were suspended by the board, including Don Rojas, communications director of the NAACP and a former editor of the New York Amsterdam News. (In the early 1980s, Rojas was also press secretary to the murdered prime minister Maurice Bishop of revolutionary Grenada.)
The official explanation for the firing was financial mismanagement. It became public in June that Chavis had reached an out-of-court settlement to pay a former female employee up to $332,400 to head off a potential sexual harassment and discrimination law suit. Chavis had not informed the board of his decision.
His critics also charged that when Chavis took over the NAACP, it was financially solvent. Today it reportedly faces a deficit of $3 million. “The issue was money,” said Sarah Greene, a board member from Knoxville, Tennessee.
Chavis responded, however, by calling the firing a “lynching” and a “crucifixion.” He charged that the NAACP is being controlled by “forces outside the African-American community.”
The Sexual Harassment Charge
The fact that Chavis did not go public earlier with his out-of-court settlement to his former administrative assistant, Mary Stansel, indicates there may be something to the charge. Prior to his ouster, however, Chavis told reporters on August 4 that the payments were made to head off a threatened lawsuit involving sexual discrimination, and not sexual harassment; he had not sought sexual favors from Stansel.
The issue of sexism in the Black rights movement is not new. Many times Black women have been told to subordinate their fight against sexism to the overall battle against racism. While this was possible to justify (even though it was wrong) in the 1950s and `60s during the height of the civil rights movement, it is definitely indefensible today.
The NAACP, for example, has an executive board of sixty-four members. Of those, fifteen are women. Yet two-thirds of the NAACP's members are women. The “gender gap” is also true for other civil rights rganizations. But it is important to note that the board did not charge Chavis with undermining the role of women in the organization, nor did it back the charge of sexual harassment or discrimination.
Whatever the truth concerning this charge and the NAACP's financial health, it is clear that money and sexism were not the central reasons for Chavis' demise. The main issue behind the Chavis firing concerns what political direction and policy the NAACP -- and the African-American community -- should follow as it enters the twenty-first century.
Soon after Chavis was elected executive director of the 500,000-member NAACP and its 2,200 units last year, he began an energetic campaign to revitalize the eighty-five-year-old organization. Chavis launched a youth recruitment drive and under his leadership, 100,000 young people joined the NAACP. Initially his successes won praise from the media and other civil rights leaders.
But Chavis did more than turn to youth in a symbolic manner. He met with urban gang leaders in a number of cities to try to draw these youth into the political and economic life of their communities. He told them and the community at large that a new policy was needed to meet the challenges of the 1990s. The Jim Crow segregation of the first sixty-five years of the NAACP (founded in 1909) required mass action and legal challenges to discriminatory laws, but now, Chavis explained, in the post-Jim Crow era, battles require new strategies to take on the institutional racism that still exists.
Chavis called for an open dialogue among supporters of civil rights. As a longtime supporter of the freedom struggle in South Africa and an admirer of Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress of South Africa, Chavis recognized the value of broadening the civil rights community to include those not normally considered part of it.
He threw open the door to other people of color, announcing plans to establish a Latino branch in New York City. He urged Indians, Asian-Americans, and progressive-minded whites to also join the association. The goal was to make the NAACP a truly multiracial organization.
Chavis said the NAACP had to be politically inclusive, as well. This included having discussions with the leaders of the Nation of Islam (NOI) led by Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan, a conservative on social and economic issues, has appealed to anti-semitic myths, while denouncing the real racism of U.S. society. The NOI, in truth, is pro-big business and advocates Black capitalism and self help. Strip away the rhetoric against whites and Jews, Farrakhan is of the Booker T. Washington school of bootstrap capitalism as opposed to the social egalitarian militancy of Malcolm X.
Farrakhan was invited by Chavis to attend a Black Leadership Summit that was held in Baltimore in June. Chavis was denounced by the media and Jewish organizations for doing so.
A year earlier Kweisi Mfume, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, came under similar attack for inviting Farrakhan to attend the CBC's Forum in Washington, D.C. Chavis attended that forum and called for a democratic discussion among all Black leaders.
Under pressure from slanderous attacks by Jewish groups and the media, the NAACP board issued a statement making clear it maintained its “integrationist nature.” It was concerned about the association's corporate sponsors and support from middle-class Blacks. Chavis' democratic stance, his “big tent” approach, was considered heresy by the traditional NAACP leadership.
The Smear Campaign
Shouts of betrayal against Chavis came from within the civil rights organization, its liberal supporters, liberals including the editors of the New York Times, and old-line establishment leaders of the Black community. In fact, a well-organized smear campaign was launched against Chavis and his leadership of the NAACP. It began months before the charges of financial mismanagement and sexual harassment surfaced.
The most articulate public spokesperson of the anti-Chavis faction was Michael Meyers, a former assistant director of the NAACP, a nearly thirty-year member, and current executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. Prior to the July NAACP convention Meyers went on television and vowed to do everything he could to oust Chavis from his post. “The NAACP,” he said, “has been hijacked by Black extremists and radicals. We have to get it back.”
Meyers set up what he called the Ad-Hoc Committee to Save the NAACP. Other Chavis critics joined in. The resolution at the board meeting to oust Chavis was presented by longtime NAACP leaders Hazel Dukes and Joe Madison. William Gibson, the chairman of the board, and previous Chavis supporter, voted for the resolution.
Many of these anti-Chavis forces even used race-baiting to attack his inclusive policies. The New York Times sounded the familiar alarm against Black racism that it had earlier used against Malcolm X. In August, a string of editorials repeated the same refrain against the “radical separatists” of Chavis' NAACP. Columnists of all stripes lectured Chavis and the board on its responsibilities.
In an Op-Ed article in the May 23 New York Times, Jack Greenberg, a professor of law at Columbia University, wrote, “It is depressing that those to whom the NAACP has turned are not mere separatists but classic demagogues... Those -- like Mr. Chavis -- who have lived and suffered for the civil rights movement for so many decades have the chance to achieve their greatest success by teaching the young what they have learned by hard experience: Black racism is different from Black pride -- it is the counterpart of white racism.”
The Political Response
Chavis responded to the charges in the July 12 New York Times, by unequivocally reaffirming his inclusive approach to building a civil rights movement for the 1990s. Chavis wrote that when he took over the NAACP, “many were questioning the organization's relevance and calling it out of touch.” He explained that “among civil rights activists, a consensus began to emerge that the movement must be redefined -- that the traditional medicine for the ills of legal apartheid is not enough to cure the crime, poverty and inequality that plague our communities and especially our youth.”
Chavis defended his call for a broad dialogue of all voices in the Black community -- including Louis Farrakhan's. He noted that dialogue did not mean agreement with another's philosophy. “Discussion,” he wrote, “does not imply endorsement. It is a necessary exercise for progress...In revitalizing our movement, we need every voice of good will. Let us debate. But let us not allow debate to become a wedge that divides the movement. Let us not be distracted from our central task: building a nation where we are not separate and unequal, where no group is relegated to poverty, and where race or creed does not determine one's destiny.”
Chavis' principled response to the all-out attack only further convinced his detractors that he had to go. His “crime” was not only that he opened the civil rights tent up to the Nation of Islam, or youthful gang-members, but also that he organized meetings asking for support from the progressive left in the African-American community. For Chavis's enemies, such meetings (which included activists such as Angela Davis) were proof that “radical extremists” were taking over the association.
A History of Struggle
Considering Chavis' political past, his attempts to broaden the NAACP should not have come as a surprise to the board of directors, Meyers or New York Times editors. Chavis had been framed up and imprisoned in North Carolina in the 1970s for his antiracist activities. At the time, he participated in and supported the discussions to form an independent Black political party. He identified with Malcolm X and supported the struggles of Third World peoples for self determination.
In the 1980s, Chavis was director of the Commission for Racial Justice and under his leadership, the group became active in the environmental movement. Chavis coined the phrase “environmental racism” to expose the fact that hazardous waste facilities nine times out of ten were put in communities of people of color.
Yet one valid criticism of Chavis does concern his retreat around environmental issues since he became head of the NAACP. For example, while the NAACP board came out against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Chavis quietly lobbied Black members of Congress to support it.
Most environmental and labor organizations opposed NAFTA because it weakened labor and environmental standards. Unfortunately, many of the NAACP's funds come from corporations that are major polluters. Environmental justice activists were also deeply dismayed by Chavis' association with a corporate lobby group, the so-called Alliance for a Superfund Action Partnership, which is seeking to change federal law requiring polluters to pay for cleaning up toxic waste dumps.
According to Triana Silton, director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in Los Angeles, “It's the polluters who have been targeting people of color for years that he's now in bed with.” (New York Times, July 10: 14) Such entanglements certainly weakened Chavis' base of support when he most needed it.
Facing the Future
In any case, why did the NAACP board of directors in the first place choose Chavis, with his militant history of struggle? They could have easily chosen more moderate leaders, such as Jesse Jackson or Julian Bond, both of whom were more than willing to take the position and would have been favorably received by NAACP's corporate backers.
The board had a big problem, however: The NAACP is in decline in the Black community and fast becoming a relic. Most youth in the Black community -- and many others of all generations -- do not view the NAACP as an effective organization. Many have little faith in the American political system and even less in the NAACP's ability. For those that still hold out hope for the system, the Congressional Black Caucus and other Black elected officials appear to exercise more influence than the NAACP.
The board needed to take some drastic measures to breathe some life into the organization. It hired Ben Chavis.
The Chavis leadership soon revealed a deeper problem, however. The NAACP is burdened with deep contradictions inherited from the civil rights movement. Jim Crow was abolished and the American political system underwent some significant adjustments in race relations, but most institutional changes have primarily bolstered the capitalist class structure. In fact, even as an important section of the Black community made gains in education, employment, and political power, the overwhelming majority of African Americans have been locked out and knocked down.
Today, the members of the new Black middle class, beneficiaries of the civil rights revolution, are happy with status quo civil rights organizations. They don't want to rock the boat. The old-line leadership of the NAACP does not want to jeopardize the thirty percent of its funding which comes from corporations and foundations. (It is noteworthy that the final blow to Chavis was the decision of the Ford Foundation to freeze a $250,000 contribution days before the August 20 emergency Board meeting.)
The strategy Chavis offered was too drastic. Chavis had to go.
In reaction to a bold strategy and pressure from their corporate backers, the old-line middle-class leaders have retrenched for now. Still, for the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, advantages won in the past are repeatedly threatened by racism today.
In the Chavis episode, part of the NAACP tentatively and briefly thought about reorienting the organization and reaching out to larger sections of the Black community as a way to counteract renewed attacks and setbacks. Unfortunately, the Chavis experience quickly proved much too active and much too radical for them.
While Chavis clearly made mistakes in management and administration, and the sexual harassment or discrimination charge is very serious, in the eyes of the status quo Black leadership his fundamental error was trying to reorient the NAACP. This time, the social and class divisions between the haves and haves-not in the Black community were played out in the NAACP to the advantage of the conservative Black middle class. This is the root cause of Chavis' demise.
Chavis's departure only underlines the urgent need for a politically revitalized NAACP. A revitalized NAACP and civil rights movement must be based on the interests of the majority of African Americans, not the better off section of the community. It must address issues like jobs, education and housing in a secular fashion so narrow-minded nationalists of the Farrakhan stripe don't get center stage. It must stand up to the wrong policies of the Democratic Party and move in the direction of independent political action.
Unless a political reorientation to the African-American working masses happens, the NAACP and other civil rights groups will continue to stagnate and be seen by many as relics of the past.
ATC 53, November-December 1994