An icon of my youth, the Rev. Ben Chavis, is a leading candidate to succeed Benjamin Hooks as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In the 1970s I attended numerous rallies organized to demand Mr. Chavis' release from a North Carolina prison, where he had been sentenced to a 35-year term for arson in connection with the bitter 1971 civil rights demonstrations in Wilmington, N.C. Mr. Chavis was freed in 1980 when his conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court.
Mr. Chavis epitomizes the tradition of civil rights advocates who organize at the grass-roots level. As the most famous member of the Wilmington 10, his face adorned posters of groups such as the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
Ironically the NAACP was not involved in efforts to free the Wilmington 10 activists, even though Mr. Chavis and his fellow defendants in the case had been cited by Amnesty International as U.S. prisoners of conscience.
Now Mr. Chavis reportedly is one of the finalists in NAACP's search for a successor to executive director Benjamin L. Hooks. The other finalists reportedly are the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, former Pennsylvania Rep. William Gray 3rd and Randall Robinson, head of the anti-apartheid lobbying group TransAfrica.
Mr. Chavis currently heads the United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice, which supports human rights efforts in this country. In a recent interview, Mr. Chavis outlined his vision of a revitalized NAACP.
"The number one priority of the NAACP should be economic justice," he says. "The organization should establish a vision of economic development for the African-American community. We need to raise up a generation of Reggie Lewises," he said, referring to his late friend and owner of TLC Beatrice International Holdings.
"The NAACP must tap the talent and energy of the young. I cannot accept the concept of a lost generation. I will never accept losing our children. If I'm selected for the job I would set a goal of a million new members."
Mr. Chavis is already working to save the young. He has helped to maintain the post-riot truce among youth gangs in Los Angeles and he is helping to organize a "gang summit," scheduled for May, to extend the truce to other cities.
His work with street gangs differs from current NAACP policy. Dr. Hooks castigated the national media for promoting street gang members as spokesmen for the inner cities during the Los Angeles uprising following the Rodney King trial.
"I believe the organization should do whatever is necessary to achieve its goals, including direct action," Mr. Chavis says. "I also believe that the group must be run on a team approach. Any organization that is too dependent on one spokesman is vulnerable."
If Bill Clinton could usher in the Baby Boom presidency, Mr. Chavis may be able to do the same for the NAACP. "I have 30 years of experience and a lifetime commitment to the movement," he says.
But will that be sufficient? Other candidates, such as Mr. Gray and Maynard Jackson, undoubtedly would be better at fund-raising. Likewise, Jesse Jackson and Randall Robinson would bring higher visibility to the organization.
Mr. Chavis, however, has the tenacity to remain in the civil rights trenches. His own experience has helped him to understand how Nelson Mandela could come out of prison stronger than when he went in. His prison years actually may be an asset in dealing with gang members who view incarceration almost as a rite of passage.
The very fact that the NAACP is seriously considering a man like Mr. Chavis shows that the organization may be contemplating a more activist stance. That's probably good. No organization can afford to remain static.
With its positions increasingly being called into question by younger blacks skeptical of its relevance in the post-civil rights era, the NAACP badly needs to restore its momentum at a critical point in its history. Mr. Chavis might be just the man to help it do that.
R. B. Jones is a Baltimore writer.