Since the announcement last month that he will become the new executive director of the NAACP, the Rev. Ben Chavis has met with gang members in Los Angeles, members of Congress in Washington and black professionals in New York.
He has pledged that the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization will make a major push to attract younger members under his leadership, that he will work to build a $100 million NAACP endowment fund, and that he will try to close the growing social and political gap between black haves and black have-nots.
He held vigil with residents in South Central Los Angeles during jury deliberations in the Rodney King beating case. He spoke out on behalf of gay rights during the recent march on Washington.
He has been, in short, a whirlwind of activity.
"I promised the [NAACP] board that I would take the organization in a number of important new directions and I believe that was a factor in their decision to appoint me," says Mr. Chavis, former head of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. He succeeded the Rev. Benjamin Hooks on May 1.
I spoke with Ben Chavis in Washington Tuesday, at a reception held in honor of Evelyn Karungari Mungai, a Kenyan businesswoman who is vice chair of the African Business Roundtable.
This was an elegant, high-powered affair given by a Washington consulting firm and attended by eight ambassadors from African nations. Business people, government officials and bankers stood about sipping wine and nibbling cheese. A musician sat in the corner playing music on an East African rhythm instrument.
It was in this rarefied environment that Mr. Chavis discussed yet another new direction for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; he plans to take the organization into the international arena.
"I see African Americans becoming to Africa what Jewish Americans have become for Israel," said Mr. Chavis. "In fact, I will make the case that unless there is that linkage -- politically and economically -- between the two, neither of us will survive."
Mr. Chavis sees the NAACP acting as a "facilitator, a catalyst, and a prodder" between business people in Africa and America. In two weeks he will attend a conference of African leaders in Gabon, West Africa, where he will propose that blacks from both continents pool their talents and resources.
Within a month, he hopes to establish an NAACP office at the United Nations. In the near future, he plans to explore the feasibility of establishing an NAACP subsidiary that can engage in business and development enterprises in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
"The NAACP can be a unifying factor in Africa," he said.
Blacks in America and Africa clearly have begun to look for linkages. Historically black colleges have increased their exchanges with universities in sub-Saharan Africa. Black professional groups have lent their technical expertise to projects there.
Tuesday's reception for Mrs. Mungai had been arranged by Westover Consultants Inc. in part to allow black American business people to meet black African business people. And tomorrow, Mrs. Mungai, the managing director of a Kenyan manufacturing, publishing and commodity trading firm, will explore establishing a joint venture with an African American sports apparel company in Washington. Mrs. Mungai's company would manufacture the clothes in Kenya for distribution and sale in America, with a "Made in Africa" tag.
Still, the movement is just beginning. For instance, the 5-year-old African Business Roundtable claims a number of American firms as members, Mrs. Mungai said. But, all of those firms are white-owned.
Mr. Chavis said he is aware of both the opportunities for investment in Africa and the need for many black businessmen here to "wake up" to those opportunities.
"I'm trying to get [the African American community] out of the small business mentality," he said. "I'm not interested in small business, I'm interested in big business. For me, that would be the fulfillment of civil rights."