It would be catastrophic if the relationship between the NAACP leadership and Minister Louis Farrakhan became the sole measuring rod of the attempt by Ben Chavis to reposition the organization closer to the base -- and therefore the problems -- of the black community.
Many blacks feel that what is being tested at the symbolic level is whether the NAACP will serve the greater community of black people or the narrow interests of a comfortable middle-class black elite.
By taking the NAACP into the ghettoes and barrios of the innercities of America and urging youthful gangs to make peace, urging greater action on environmental racism, supporting health care for poor minorities, humane welfare reform and job training, a new U.S. foreign policy for Africa and other urgent issues, Dr. Chavis is not moving "left." He is moving the resources of the organization closer to the very bowels of those problems which confront poor, black and other minority peoples.
In 1993, a national survey by the Detroit Free Press clearly illustrated that most black people believe that civil-rights organizations remain necessary, but that they are not dealing satisfactorily with black people's most basic problems.
The poll also found that most black people were not connected to any of these organizations; hence, Dr. Chavis, by moving closer to their agenda, has managed to enroll more than 125,000 new members since he became the NAACP's executive director.
By organizing a recent meeting of progressive intellectuals, Dr. Chavis is listening to more than one kind of political and social thought. One reason accurate policy solutions and social
strategies are often not found is that the strongest advocates and analysts of the condition of poor and black people have been frozen out of the major media or the policy process. What is often substituted for grounded analysis of the problems of the dispossessed is facile sloganeering, such as "three strikes, you're out" or "two years, you're off welfare."
By changing the image and program of the NAACP from that of a social club to an aggressive organization with a grass-roots orientation, Dr. Chavis will threaten the interests of some who have kept it irrelevant to the front-line challenges our people face in their quest for survival. The time for change is now. This struggle, predicted by some, should be no cause for abandoning the leader, the course he has set or the organization.
Hazel Dukes, New York state chairwoman of the NAACP, has recently attempted to remind the public that there are stakes beyond the media mania with Minister Farrakhan, and that the essential work of the NAACP continues on an interracial basis.
I agree, but there is also an irony in the public attitude toward Dr. Chavis' efforts to reposition the NAACP, in that his efforts have been attacked by the very people who wish that the organization could "take more responsibility" and be more effective within the black community. Are they saying that the maintenance of a certain kind of interracial posture is more important than the expansion of the organization in the 'hood?
Perhaps the task of repositioning also dictates currying support from those whites and others who understand that taking more responsibility is not something which can be mandated from above or outside of the black community. It is an act of ongoing love for the people and attention to their problems by the NAACP leadership. If Dr. Chavis succeeds, the benefits will rebound not only to blacks, but to the broader community as well. Everyone has a stake in his success.
Ronald Walters chairs the Political Science Department at Howard University.