Ben Chavis: A New Director, a New Direction at the NAACP

Article excerpt

BEN Chavis is "no stranger to the movement," for he has been active in civil rights since he got his first NAACP membership card at age 12. And he certainly is no stranger to the indignities of wrongful incarceration, to the humiliation of shackles, for the "Wilmington 10" leader spent four and a half years in prison.

Nor is Ben Chavis a stranger to the hard work, patience and administrative skills required to run a major civil rights organization: he worked for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice for some 25 years and was CEO for eight.

That's why the recent appointment of Dr. Benjamin Franklin Chavis to head the venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was greeted with enthusiasm and optimism. And that is also why the 45-year-old activist clergyman hit the ground running immediately after his appointment.

Within days, the dynamic leader, who is known for his aggressive tactics, took up residence in a Watts housing project in Los Angeles. He met daily with former gang members and youth leaders in an effort to keep the community stable as the jury deliberated the verdicts in the second trial of four policement indicted for the beating of Rodney King.

While in Los Angeles, Chavis also met with the 12 heads of the area NAACP branches, as well as with White, Jewish, Hispanic and Asian community leaders. He also met with numerous city officials and attended a luncheon for the NAACP's ACT-SO youth program.

In the succeeding weeks he hosted a gang summit in Kansas City, met with President Clinton and Vice President Gore, participated in the gay rights rally in Washington, testified at a hearing on environmental waste, spoke at the Detroit NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner and met with the Congressional Black Caucus, in addition to traveling back and forth between his Cleveland home and the NAACP's offices in Baltimore.

Ben Chavis is a man on the move, a man with a mission, and he appears to have the heart, soul and stamina that will be necessary assets in his new job. As the NAACP's executive director, he follows in the footsteps of former FCC Commissioner Benjamin Hooks, who retired after serving the organization for 15 years.

Today, the NAACP has a new director and a new direction, though many of the old problems remain. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of brothers and sisters who think there is no longer a racial problem," says Chavis. "The NAACP is issuing a wake-up call to the African-American community. Hey, racism is still here. They may have taken down the signs, but discrimination is still very much prevalent."

Chavis' priorities are to:

* Establish an endowment. At the NAACP conference this month in Indianapolis, he plans to kick off an endowment campaign aimed at corporate donors as well as at "grass roots" people who want to help ensure the permanence of the historic civil rights organization, which operates with a $13 million annual budget. "When you stand up on controversial issues, the last thing you want is financial insecurity," says Chavis. "If you are financially insecure, you can be silenced."

* Launch an aggressive membership campaign. The NAACP has about 500,-000 members. While Chavis wants to attract more young people, he stresses the "integenerational appeal" of the organization. "We don't want to lose our elders," he says, "for they have a lot of wisdom to pass on, a lot of skills and talent to be used for the NAACP."

* Fight neighborhood crime by having a greater presence in troubled communities, such as South Central Los Angeles. The gang summit in Kansas City that Chavis initiated before his current appointment is part of his effort to defuse violence in Black neighborhoods.

* Set up NAACP branches in Africa and the Caribbean, and an office at the United Nations.

* Expand the base of the NAACP to "involve other people-of-color communities," such as Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. …