Chavis' Creative Confrontation


NAACP director Benjamin F. Chavis appears determined to make economic empowerment the Baltimore-based organization's top priority.

Since assuming the helm of the nation's oldest civil rights group earlier this year, Mr. Chavis has steadily steered the NAACP away from its traditional strategy of using legal challenges through the courts to address the problems of black America. Instead he seems intent on confronting corporate America head-on through activist measures such as the "Fair Share" agreements.

The NAACP publicly lambasted giant Hughes Aircraft of California for what it called the company's dismal record in minority hiring. Even after Hughes agreed informally to work with the NAACP to resolve their differences, the group continued to criticize the company for what it called Hughes' widespread mistreatment of minorities.

Mr. Chavis insists his deliberately confrontational tactics are aimed at making corporate America more responsive. "Signing a billion-dollar agreement" with a big Charlotte (N.C.) fast-food company recently "sent reverberations throughout the business community," he said. "Some people thought that it would jar other companies from talking with the NAACP, but the opposite has happened. We are getting calls from corporate leaders in the oil industry, autos and high-tech who are seeking to make changes."

Black Americans spent some $380 billion on goods and services last year. Mr. Chavis' strategy is based on the premise that companies that benefit from black consumerism have a responsibility to address the needs of the black community.

Nearly three decades after the high tide of the civil rights movement, which brought important gains in access to public accommodations and increasing black political power, blacks still remain outside the economic mainstream in America and are under-represented in the work force and management of the largest corporations. The NAACP has negotiated versions of its Fair Share agreements with some 70 American companies.

"Does it not make good business sense for companies to redefine their relationship with a multiracial society?" Mr. Chavis asks. The NAACP's new tack not only suggests that it does but that the redefinition he has in mind is also long overdue.

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