NAACP's head courts corporate cooperation Chavis reflects on first half-year in office

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., executive director of the NAACP, sat down last week with Robert E. Allen, chairman of the talk went well beyond an embarrassing illustration in the company's employee magazine that Mr. Allen himself called "racist."

Dr. Chavis pressed the chairman of the nation's largest long-distance carrier on issues such as the number of blacks in American Telephone & Telegraph Co. management and the company's dealings with African-American banks.

It was an approach that has typified Dr. Chavis' first six months as the head of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the country's largest and oldest civil rights group.

Not content to extract a corporate mea culpa for racial insensitivity, the 45-year-old civil rights leader has used the leverage that a company's embarrassment provides -- whether charges of bias against a Denny's restaurant, hiring practices at Hughes Aircraft or a cartoon in AT&T;'s magazine -- to push for agreements to benefit blacks.

"I'm not into hollow threats. I think those are counterproductive," Dr. Chavis said in an interview in which he reflected on his first half-year on the job. "We want to get beyond 'incidents' to the larger question of the systemic relationship between corporations and the African-American community."

It is too early to tell whether Dr. Chavis' efforts will be fruitful -- or whether the NAACP's deals with corporate America will hurt its credibility with black America.

Too much dependence on corporate largess could compromise the group's independence at the very time Dr. Chavis is "repositioning the NAACP toward grass-roots problems," said Ronald Walters, a Howard University political scientist.

"Overall, Ben Chavis gets high marks," he said. "But you can't raise money from corporations and at the same time hold them accountable. Let's imagine AT&T; had given the NAACP $300,000. Would they still have been at the table? I'd prefer to see the NAACP really ratchet up its membership to pay for what it needs to do."

Dr. Chavis says one signal accomplishment of his tenure has been reaching an agreement to increase blacks' role in Flagstar Cos. Inc., the parent corporation of the Denny's chain. (He also backed the Flagstar chairman's bid for a National Football League franchise in Charlotte, N.C., provoking outrage in Baltimore, which also seeks an NFL team.)

Critics call the Flagstar agreement "soft," ill-timed and unenforceable. The NAACP should have waited until discrimination cases against Denny's worked their way through the courts before dealing with Flagstar, says John Relman of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

But Dr. Chavis contends that the Flagstar agreement -- which provides for increased hiring and promotion of blacks, more purchasing from African-American suppliers and NAACP monitoring of the Denny's chain for bias -- will be enforced in the court of public opinion. If Flagstar falters, he says, the NAACP will let the nation know.

Dr. Chavis says his emphasis on economic issues is part of a "logical progression" in the evolution of a civil rights group best known for dismantling legal barriers to African-American advancement.

"Our mandate has been to challenge racial discrimination," Dr. Chavis said. "One thing we have concluded is that racial discrimination in the United States is sustained in the context of economic inequality. So, in seeking a long-term solution, one needs to level the economic playing field."

Dr. Chavis also has been concerned with the economic vitality of the NAACP itself.

The civil rights group depends heavily on a loose network of 2,200 local branches staffed almost exclusively by volunteers. The organization's financial health has always been precarious, and its dowdy headquarters in Northwest Baltimore's Seton Business Park has yet to enter the computer age.

In an effort to boost the group's bankroll, Dr. Chavis launched the NAACP's first endowment drive at the group's July convention with a $2 million bequest from the late Reginald F. Lewis, America's richest black businessman and a Chavis intimate. So far, $3.1 million has been raised toward a goal of $100 million, the NAACP leader said.

Dr. Chavis also seeks to expand and rejuvenate the NAACP, which many blacks have deemed out of touch with problems such as drug addiction and violence.

He says NAACP membership has increased by 110,000 -- to more than 600,000 -- since he won the job by a vote of the 64-member board of directors in April.

Rodney Orange, president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, said Dr. Chavis has generated a new interest in the group. He was disappointed when Dr. Chavis could not attend the branch's annual unity banquet last month because "people really want to get to know him."

Focusing on violence, he has walked the streets of South Central Los Angeles and played host to a "summit" of gang leaders. Such actions have moved the NAACP closer to young African-Americans' concerns.

"My youth has been an asset," Dr. Chavis said. "I'm still young enough not to be out of touch with the young generation, but I'm old enough to be in touch with the elders of the movement. I have helped reposition the leadership of the NAACP."

In seeking to extend the NAACP's reach beyond its core membership -- the church-going, well-educated black middle class -- Dr. Chavis has walked into a couple of minefields.

In August, he publicly praised Rodney G. King, the black victim of a 1991 beating by white Los Angeles police officers, for his "freedom-seeking, justice-seeking behavior."

Days later, Mr. King, a former convict who was driving drunk the night of the beating, was again arrested on a drunken-driving charge. Critics accused Dr. Chavis of glorifying a common criminal.

"I still believe Rodney King is a victim of racial hostility in our society," Dr. Chavis said. "Because I define him as a victim doesn't mean I'm lifting him up as an angel to be emulated. . . . I still believe we in the NAACP can be of help and assistance to Rodney King if he would join our fellowship and work with us."

Then last month, Dr. Chavis shared a platform with Louis T. Farrakhan, the black separatist leader of the Nation of Islam whose anti-Semitism has kept him out of the civil rights mainstream. The NAACP leader says he is not endorsing Mr. Farrakhan's views.

"I believe Minister Louis Farrakhan is an important leader within the African-American community. To deny the presence of his leadership would be a mistake," he said.

"But I emphatically state that we in the NAACP are opposed to any form of racism or anti-Semitism," he said. "The NAACP was born in 1909 as an interracial organization. It always has been one and always will be."

Roger Wilkins, a civil rights activist and George Mason University history professor, said Dr. Chavis is "an energetic, intelligent guy."

"People are sitting up and taking notice," he said.

But Mr. Wilkins is concerned that Dr. Chavis may spread himself too thin instead of focusing on the problem of black poverty in America.

"Black people need jobs, American workers need to be hired and, if they don't have the skills, they need to be retrained. It's up to government and industry to do this," Mr. Wilkins said. "The NAACP needs to pound that message home. The voice of Ben Chavis needs to be part of a huge clarion call, and I don't hear it yet."

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