In the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, the NAACP has picked a leader well qualified by temperament and experience to lead the nation's oldest civil rights group. Mr. Chavis, one of 10 protesters wrongly imprisoned after the 1971 riots in Wilmington, N.C., has been involved in civil-rights activities for over two decades and comes to the NAACP after serving as director of the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice, where he helped focus attention on the problem of illegal toxic waste dumping in minority communities.
Mr. Chavis also represents a younger generation of African-Americans, many of whom have become skeptical of the relevance of the NAACP in the post-civil rights era. Although racial tensions remain a volatile element in American life, the legalistic strategy pursued by the NAACP seems less well suited to the economic and social problems currently afflicting the black community.
For example, Cornel West, a professor of religion and Afro-American studies at Princeton University, has written that the liberal-conservative debate that has dominated recent discussion actually obscures a more basic issue -- what Mr. West calls "a profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness and social despair" among many blacks. Mr. West attributes this malaise to the growing influence of a "culture of consumerism," which has led to the shattering of traditional family, community and religious values, and to what he calls the "crisis" of black leadership.
The leadership crisis stems from the loss of what Mr. West calls "race-transcending prophetic leaders" like the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, and the ascendancy of either managerial technicians who try to reduce all black social and economic aspirations to the terms of mainstream politics or demagogues who offer racial rhetoric divorced from practical solutions.
Ironically Jesse Jackson, the other top candidate for the NAACP job, had the potential to become a Harold Washington-type leader. But confronted with a national board of directors famous for jealously guarding its policy-setting prerogative, Mr. Jackson's free-wheeling style almost certainly would have provoked conflict, something he said he wanted to avoid when he withdrew his name.
Mr. Chavis also has the potential to be an effective leader. As the first Baby Boomer to head the NAACP, he could well find a sympathetic ear in the first Baby Boomer president, Bill Clinton, on whose transition team Mr. Chavis served.
Mr. Jackson has offered his help, too. His having been passed over by the NAACP underscored the problematic nature of Mr. Jackson's career at this point. He may have missed his best shot at a major office when he decided not to run for mayor of the District of Columbia. Yet he still commands a large following whose support could be crucial to Mr. Chavis' success. It's too soon to count him out.