No one knew it then, but the end of the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.'s stormy 16 1/2 months as NAACP executive director began June 30 with some shuffling of paper in the clerk's office of District of Columbia Superior Court.
That day Mary E. Stansel, who worked so briefly at the civil rights group's Baltimore headquarters that few members of the NAACP board of directors even remember her, filed suit. Ms. Stansel, a 49-year-old lawyer whom Dr. Chavis fired in May 1993, charged him and the NAACP with breach of contract.
That filing put on the public record a secret deal in which Dr. Chavis had agreed to pay Ms. Stansel up to $332,400 -- without telling his board or the NAACP general counsel. The Stansel lawsuit set in motion a chain of events that culminated Saturday night in Baltimore when all but a handful of 57 NAACP board members present voted to fire Ben Chavis.
The 46-year-old executive director's dismissal capped three weeks of controversy, and it ended the most profound internal upheaval in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 85-year history.
Yet participants said the board meeting that ousted Dr. Chavis, held behind the stained-glass windows and doors of the NAACP's Roy Wilkins Auditorium, was devoid of rancor, emotion or high drama. They described it as businesslike.
"There was no finger-pointing," said Dr. Robert Gilliard, a board member from Mobile, Ala. "We just dealt with the facts. . . . There was no banging fists on tables or yelling. Everybody stayed very subdued and calm throughout the whole discussion."
This is a story, based on interviews with two dozen board members and other NAACP sources, of the firing of Ben Chavis, leader of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group.
Mary Stansel had known Ben Chavis since about 1980, when Dr. Chavis was paroled after more than four years in North Carolina prisons. The fiery young minister who wore a Roman collar and an Afro had been convicted of conspiracy in the 1971 firebombing of a white-owned Wilmington grocery. His conviction was later overturned.
Dr. Chavis had become a cause celebre as a member of the Wilmington 10, deemed American political prisoners by Amnesty International.
Ms. Stansel, a native Alabamian, made her mark in the early 1970's as one of only eight black students at the University of Georgia law school. Then, in 1979, she settled in as a legislative analyst on Capitol Hill for Sen. Howell Heflin, an Alabama Democrat.
The two young black activists met in Washington. And it was there where their paths crossed again in early 1993 at a congressional reception.
Dr. Chavis, then executive director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, was readying a campaign to be NAACP executive director. Ms. Stansel was out of work, having left Senator Heflin's office on a disability claim, and willing to help out.
In February 1993, what Chavis intimates called "The Team" came together. Their mission: grab the NAACP leadership for Ben Chavis. The competition was formidable, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. He apparently had the backing of Dr. William F. Gibson, a Greenville, S.C., dentist who had known Mr. Jackson from childhood and who happened to be NAACP board chairman.
The Team included Larry Wallace, a Washington lawyer and longtime Chavis friend; Lewis Myers Jr., a Chicago lawyer who did legal work for the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan; Don Rojas, outgoing editor of Harlem's Amsterdam News and a former aide to Maurice Bishop, the prime minister killed before the U.S. invasion of Grenada; and Baltimore businessman Anthony Fugett, whose brother Reginald F. Lewis, the wealthiest black man in America, had died in January. Dr. Chavis gave the eulogy at the Lewis funeral in West Baltimore.
Ms. Stansel joined The Team to work the phones and fax machine at Mr. Wallace's suburban Washington office and keep Dr. Chavis' schedule as he lobbied board members around the nation. She went with The Team to the Atlanta NAACP board meeting where Dr. Chavis was elected April 9, 1993.
Jobs for The Team
Dr. Chavis, having snagged a three-year contract to run the NAACP at about $200,000 a year, rewarded The Team.
Mr. Myers was named deputy executive director, with a six-figure salary. Mr. Rojas was made director of communications. Mr. Wallace's wife, Lorena, was put in the newly created position of comptroller. Mr. Fugett became an unpaid national board member. And Ms. Stansel was Dr. Chavis' interim administrative assistant.
Veterans at NAACP headquarters generally regarded the Chavis team as haughty and aloof. But they singled out Ms. Stansel for special disdain. They resented her edict to make office workers sign out when they went to lunch and leave a phone number where they could be reached.
Six weeks later, Dr. Chavis fired Ms. Stansel. Chavis advisers began to hear that Ms. Stansel, who had been the plaintiff in a series of suits large and small, was threatening to sue. Dr. Gibson, the board chairman, says he received a letter from her attorney in October that he referred to Dr. Chavis as a personnel matter.
Dr. Chavis, however, didn't consult Dennis C. Hayes, NAACP general counsel. Instead, he retained a large, minority-run Silver Spring law firm. Friends say Dr. Chavis considered the NAACP's Mount Hope Drive headquarters a rumor mill. He feared that word of Ms. Stansel's allegations might leak out to unfriendly
On Nov. 12, 1993, Dr. Chavis, acting on behalf of the NAACP, reached the out-of-court settlement with Ms. Stansel that was his undoing.
The terms were these: The NAACP would pay Ms. Stansel $35,000 immediately, $15,000 within 15 days, and $5,400 a month for up to six months or until Dr. Chavis helped her receive a suitable job offer -- an $80,000-a-year job in the Washington area.
If she got no such offer, the NAACP would pay her $250,000 over 12 months.
The NAACP board and general counsel apparently knew nothing of this. Ms. Stansel received $64,000 in NAACP funds by electronic transfer through the Silver Spring law firm. The payments were recorded as NAACP legal department expenditures. Unnamed "friends" paid an additional $18,400.
The board might never have known of the Stansel deal, but the money was running out. NAACP Treasurer Jerry Maulden, an Arkansas utility executive, shocked the board in May by reporting the NAACP had accumulated a $2.7 million deficit in the first quarter of 1994.
Dr. Chavis' predecessor, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, had slashed the budget, cut staff, raised funds and gotten a $500,000 Ford Foundation grant for a reserve fund.
Now the NAACP was back in the red. The organization's televised Image Awards, a program run by a board committee, had lost $600,000. The NAACP had to pay $680,000 for an old civil judgment against it.
Dr. Chavis had delivered, like a dowry, a $2 million pledge from the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation in July 1993 to start an NAACP endowment. But nearly a year later, only $200,000 was in the bank. And the Chavis administration was spending -- on higher salaries, leased Lincoln Town Cars, an unbudgeted black leadership summit, and staff and board travel to South Africa and around the nation.
Dr. Chavis tried to renegotiate the Stansel deal. Ms. Stansel wouldn't dicker. And on June 30, she went to court, charging the NAACP with reneging on the agreement.
In her suit, she laid out some explosive language. She said she had settled with Dr. Chavis to avoid a claim alleging "employment discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful discharge."
Lawsuit becomes public
By mid-July, at the NAACP convention in Chicago, word of the Stansel lawsuit began to filter out. The press still didn't know about it, but William Lucy, a high official in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), had obtained a copy. He showed it to a few board members, but he did not raise the issue.
Other board members, however, asked some pointed questions of Dr. Chavis and Dr. Gibson. Were there any pending lawsuits or claims against the NAACP? The answer was no.
The lawsuit became public July 29, when The Sun and the New York Times reported that Dr. Chavis had made a secret deal to avoid sexual harassment allegations.
The NAACP executive director was in Jamaica, but Dr. Gibson rushed out a statement that Ms. Stansel was fired because of "continual clashes" with staff and because she had made "astronomical salary demands."
Why hadn't Dr. Chavis told the board? His lawyer, Abbey G. Hairston, said he wanted to avoid disrupting the activist, youth-oriented direction he was charting for the NAACP.
"He was literally scared to death," she said. "He was new, and she was threatening him."
Leroy W. Warren Jr., a Maryland board member already gunning for Dr. Chavis, pounced on the news: "All I know is he's become a burden. He's just totally spinning out of control."
Two days later, with concern spreading throughout the board, Dr. Chavis and Dr. Gibson called a news conference in Atlanta.
Dr. Chavis held hands with his wife, Martha, who is pregnant with twins, and vigorously denied sexually harassing Ms. Stansel. He said he settled with her "to protect the NAACP from exposure to false and slanderous allegations."
Dr. Gibson said the executive director had the authority to make the deal. He called an emergency board meeting to discuss the lawsuit for Aug. 20, on the eve of a second NAACP-sponsored black leadership summit in Baltimore, to include Minister Farrakhan. The timing appeared ideal for Dr. Chavis.
On Aug. 3, syndicated columnist Carl T. Rowan published the first of four blistering columns on the NAACP. It began: "It is sickening to watch the death of the NAACP, a once-proud organization now being strangled by two incredibly arrogant leaders."
Calls for ouster
There were scattered calls for the resignations of Dr. Chavis and Dr. Gibson. Board members began to prepare a letter to force the chairman to alter the Aug. 20 meeting's agenda to make it possible to fire Dr. Chavis.
Dr. Gibson was getting the message. A week after the Stansel story broke, he began to back away from Dr. Chavis, the man he had lavishly praised only three weeks before at the Chicago convention as "a good friend, a young man I have grown to know and to love."
The executive director, savoring a convention triumph over board opponents, had responded in kind, saying of Dr. Gibson: "I can turn my back on him and never feel a flick. I will not only guard his back but turn my face to stop anyone who wants to attack him."
Now Dr. Gibson repeated that Dr. Chavis had authority to make the Stansel deal, but pointedly added: ""I didn't say that was the way I would have handled it." Gibson allies on the board began to say the chairman would assume a hands-off posture.
Dr. Chavis charged that unnamed "outside forces" were trying to bring him down. He produced a letter from an Alabama lawyer that he said proved sexual harassment had nothing to do with the Stansel case. Carl Rowan countered with documents that appeared to prove otherwise and to show that Dr. Chavis had lied about NAACP membership gains.
On the eve of the board meeting, The Sun and other newspapers reported sexual harassment allegations against Dr. Chavis by Susan Tisdale, a second fired employee. The same day she joined Dr. Chavis at a news conference to say the "misunderstanding" had been resolved.
Board members asked: Why did Dr. Chavis settle with Ms.
Stansel for so much? Why wouldn't he talk about his relationship with her? Why didn't he inform the board? Why didn't he consult the general counsel? Why didn't NAACP financial statements reflect the settlement?
Board members gather
The NAACP board, predominantly middle-class, gray-haired, church-going and Southern, is a warm fraternity. On the morning of Saturday's historic meeting, there were hugs, handshakes and laughter as board members milled about the Cross Keys Inn.
Most said they had come to Baltimore with open minds. They wanted to hear Dr. Chavis' side of the story. A few whispered they had the votes to oust the executive director. It had been a week of cross-country phone calls and faxes.
"Ma Bell made more money on this than anybody else," Vice-Chairman Ben P. Andrews Jr., a Republican investment banker from Hartford, Conn., said yesterday. "I talked to more board members prior to this meeting than ever in my life."
At headquarters, a small band of Chavis supporters rallied on the lawn. Some vowed to disrupt the board meeting if necessary. A tangle of television cameras and reporters was kept at bay under a barren tree far from the action.
Board members settled down to lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and string beans. They sat two to a table in the auditorium, sharing a microphone, facing a head table with 15 seats. The room was decorated in NAACP blue and gold.
Dr. Gibson called the meeting to order at 1:26 p.m. General Counsel Dennis C. Hayes made a crisp analysis of the Stansel case. The legal committee co-chairs, Judge Fred L. Banks Jr., a Mississippi state Supreme Court justice, and Franklin E. Breckenridge, a corporate attorney from Indiana, made recommendations.
Chavis has his say
Then Dr. Chavis and his lawyers spoke. The executive director had vowed to name the names of people who were out to get him, but he refrained "for the sake of unity."
"I am the authorizer," Dr. Chavis had told reporters the day before. He struck the same tone with the board. He said there were precedents for such settlements, but cited no specifics. Some members found him arrogant. They expected contrition, but heard none.
For the most part, the arguments were cool, legalistic. Did Dr. Chavis have constitutional authority to bypass the board and the general counsel? The lawyers argued.
"Dennis Hayes in essence said Dr. Chavis and his law firm acted improperly, and he felt their interpretation was wrong," said Joseph E. Madison, a chief Chavis critic.
The heart of the meeting was a long question-and-answer session.
Board members referred often to the "little blue book," the NAACP constitution, particularly Article XIII. It states that no part of the NAACP "shall have authority or power to impose or incur financial liability on the part of the Association without the express authorization of the Board of Directors, obtained in writing in advance."
One member said he had asked at the board's July meeting if there were any payoffs to former employees and Dr. Chavis had said no. Why?
"Dr. Chavis replied, 'I don't consider a settlement a payoff.' People kind of laughed at that," Mr. Madison said.
Another asked: "If this settlement had not been made public, would we have ever known about it?" Board members said Dr. Chavis didn't give a direct answer.
Enolia McMillan, an 89-year-old Baltimore board member and past NAACP president, said Dr. Chavis' "explanations weren't good enough. . . . I think many of us already had a sense that we couldn't afford an executive director who first of all wasn't 100 percent truthful, next he spent the money unwisely."
There were no personal questions, none about sexual harassment. There was no bloodletting, name-calling or finger-pointing.
After about three hours, a procedural vote was taken on whether to accept the general counsel's recommendations on how to handle the Stansel suit. It passed overwhelmingly.
"We knew that was it," Mr. Madison said. "In essence, it placed Chavis at odds with the board."
With Dr. Chavis excused, James Ghee, a Farmville, Va., lawyer, introduced the resolution to fire the executive director. About 6 p.m., after revisions, the two-paragraph resolution dismissing Dr. Chavis, effective immediately, was ready for a vote.
By a voice vote, the board fired Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. as its seventh executive director since the NAACP was founded in 1909. A quick show of hands confirmed his fate.
"It went so fast," said Mr. Madison, Dr. Chavis' main nemesis, "that I was leaning down to make a comment to Bill Lucy and I missed the vote. But then I got my hand up."
Dr. Gibson delivered the news to the executive director's second-floor office.
Throughout the meeting, the powerful chairman simply presided. He neither spoke to the issues nor sprang to Dr. Chavis' defense as he often had before. His silence spoke volumes.
"It was a management issue," Vice Chairman Andrews said. "It had nothing to do with sexual harassment. It had nothing to do with sexual discrimination. It wasn't a civil rights issue. It was a judgment issue."
Larry Carter, a Des Moines, Iowa, board member, was one of the few to stick with Dr. Chavis.
"It was like a steamroller coming down the pike," he said. "I didn't feel as though I had a voice. . . . They had blood and they wanted somebody to fall on the sword. Dr. Chavis didn't fall. He was pushed."
Series of mistakes
With the deed done, the meeting dragged on for three more hours about technicalities. The board decided to postpone the black leadership summit (which Dr. Chavis is carrying on under his own banner). Minister Farrakhan's name never came up.
Word soon leaked out to the Chavis supporters, and the youth packed the headquarters lobby. Rodney Orange, Baltimore NAACP president, who was in the vestibule, said they had to be dissuaded from storming the board room. In the end, they disbanded and boarded buses.
Board members say Ben Chavis' downfall was the accumulation of a series of mistakes -- holding a secret meeting of black nationalists without telling the board, lobbying for the North American Free Trade Agreement in disregard of an NAACP position against it, spending unwisely, claiming huge membership gains -- all capped by the Stansel deal.
"There's no joy in doing what we had to do," said Kelly M. Alexander Jr., a Charlotte, N.C., board member who had strongly supported Dr. Chavis. "I remain supportive of many initiatives we had. But this organization is bigger than any individual."