CHICAGO -- A defiant Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. lashed out at critics yesterday and vowed to keep charting a new course for the NAACP as the group opened its 85th annual convention.
"We are the NAACP, and we are not going to let anything or anybody turn us around," the NAACP executive director told a crowd of 4,000 in his keynote speech last night.
"No bombs, no guns, no racism, no bigotry, no hatred, no prejudice, no news media, no back-stabbing . . . no envy, no jealousy, no pettiness, no disunity, no inflated egos. None of these things are going to stop the NAACP from moving forward," Dr. Chavis said.
The 46-year-old leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has been criticized for forging ties with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, and for allowing the Baltimore-based NAACP to fall into a $2.7 million deficit since he took office in April 1993.
Minister Farrakhan, whose headquarters are in Chicago, is not scheduled to address the convention, but Dr. Chavis said he might meet with the black separatist leader.
In a symbolic challenge to the leadership of Dr. Chavis and the board chairman, William F. Gibson, civil rights veteran C. DeLores Tucker said yesterday that she would run for election to the board of directors at the convention.
Dr. Tucker, founder of the National Political Congress of Black Women, former Pennsylvania secretary of state and a trustee of the NAACP's fund-raising arm, said that she had "decided to accept a draft because I don't know how the money is being spent."
"What I read seems to indicate that fiscal responsibility is lacking," Dr. Tucker said.
"It isn't wise when you're in debt to have expensive programs and travel without retrenching. There's a lot of concern from people all over the country."
Dr. Tucker clashed with Dr. Chavis last winter over a seminar the NAACP sponsored on rap music. After she protested, the NAACP board condemned "gangsta rap" for lyrics that degrade women.
The convention elects only one member to the board, so the vote will be significant mainly as a chance for the more than 3,000 delegates to register a protest with the leadership.
Dr. Gibson, who has staked his own leadership on Dr. Chavis' performance, said that if the board were picking an executive director today, it would vote "overwhelmingly" for Dr. Chavis again.
Stung by news media criticism of the NAACP, Dr. Gibson told reporters: "We don't give a damn what you think."
Dr. Chavis attacked one critic, Michael Meyers, leader of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, for trying to "gain some credibility by throwing rocks at us." He charged that Mr. Meyers, a former NAACP official, was "fired because of incompetence."
Mr. Meyers, who refers to Dr. Chavis as a "black extremist," could not be reached.
In his speech, Dr. Chavis said that NAACP membership had increased to 675,000 from 490,000 during his tenure.
Some critics, even within the group, are skeptical that membership has increased as quickly as Dr. Chavis says.
The issue of the NAACP's troubled finances could arise as the convention gets down to business today. However, the schedule provides more time for speeches, pageantry and consideration of leadership-screened resolutions than open debate.
Dr. Chavis told the convention that the NAACP would start a program to train youth for entrepreneurship and increase its efforts at the grass-roots level to combat violence and drug abuse.
He also called on the federal government to investigate alleged "racial tracking" in the schools -- the disproportionate number of black students in special education and less academically challenging classes, and high rates of expulsions for African-Americans.