Unrepentant Benjamin Chavis is determined to repair his image and build a national platform After the Fall


Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is not the kind of man to just go away, to leap willingly into that pit of oblivion that spectacular failure often opens beneath the feet of public figures.

When he was fired last Aug. 20 as executive director of the NAACP, accused of mismanaging the organization's funds and in disgrace for surreptitiously trying to buy off a female aide who claimed he had sexually harassed her, many people expected to see the last of him.

Many people were wrong.

Ten months after losing the most prestigious job in the civil rights movement, the $200,000 salary that went with it, a living allowance, expense account and half a million dollars in life insurance, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is hard at work, trying to regain a national platform from which to air his views. He is unrepentant, accepts no blame for what happened to him in Baltimore. Mary E. Stansel, the woman who accused him of sexual harassment, is lying, he says. In trying to buy her off, he insists he was seeking to protect the NAACP from a lawsuit, an assertion some people have difficulty taking with a straight face. He feels he was treated unfairly.

All this comes out as he sits in a borrowed office of Phi Beta Sigma, a national black fraternity headquartered in Washington. Mr. Chavis, 47, is a freckled man with a wispy goatee. He looks crisp, despite the heat, in an olive, double-breasted suit, lemon yellow tie. There is a flash of gold on his wrist. He is unequivocal, and displays the poise of the consummate political acrobat, certain of rebound.

The vehicle he hopes will carry him far away from last August's debacle is the National African American Leadership Summit, which he directs and which has offices -- much more modest than the one he's seated in -- above those of the fraternity. The leadership summit, officially launched last month at a convention in Houston, will encourage unity and cooperation among the many and diverse civil rights groups in the country, Mr. Chavis says.

The first test of his new organization's clout will come Oct. 16 when Mr. Chavis tries to organize 1 million black men to march on Washington. Originally the brainchild of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, it is an idea as ambitious as it is unlikely.

But Mr. Chavis, who once languished for five years in a North Carolina jail as a member of the Wilmington 10, is undaunted by the challenge of pulling it off.

The leadership summit is "the national mobilization center for the Million Man March," he says. "It is one of our top priorities."

Lagging enthusiasm

Still, Ben Chavis knows he has taken a big fall and is finding his rehabilitation less than easy going. Press coverage of the Houston convention was minimal. The only national figure there besides himself was Mr. Farrakhan, a lightning rod for controversy and one of Mr. Chavis' principal allies. But big names like Jesse Jackson and Myrlie B. Evers Williams, the new chairwoman of the NAACP, were noticeably absent.

Most people in the civil rights community are politely approving of Mr. Chavis' new organization, but not all.

"It doesn't amount to a hill of beans," snaps Carl T. Rowan, the black newspaper columnist who crusaded against Mr. Chavis when he was at the NAACP.

Others are kinder.

"The problems that face the African-American community, all communities of color in this country, are so large there is a place for many, many organizations," says the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, head of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice.

"There's definitely a place for it," says Joseph E. Madison, an NAACP board member who was one of Mr. Chavis' sharpest critics.

Though the leadership summit is probably Mr. Chavis' most important tool in making a comeback, it is not his only platform. He has a talk show on WOLB-AM (1010 on the dial), heard in Baltimore and Washington. It is called "The Freedom Journal."

The show occupies a graveyard slot on the airways, 7 to 10 Saturday mornings. During those three hours he extols the lessons of black leaders like Marcus Garvey, conveys his commitment to pan-Africanism and promotes the leadership summit.

He also takes calls from listeners to talk about the issues. On a recent show, "Don from Baltimore" complained about attempts to link the Nation of Islam to the bombing in Oklahoma City. "Brother Glen" said the administration's new anti-terrorism legislation would make it easy for the FBI to infiltrate black civil rights organizations. "Dennis in Maryland" was looking for a job. "Sister Maggie" just wanted to praise his show.

On the air, Mr. Chavis makes much of his visits to Africa. On May 29, he told listeners he was traveling that very day to Dakar, in Senegal, to attend a summit meeting of African heads of state.

This drew an acerbic comment from a caller named Evelyn, an African woman who complained that many African-Americans who go to meetings in Africa are more interested in what Africa can do for them than in what they can do for Africa.

"It is assumed in the indigenous African community that African-Americans are more interested in [economic] opportunities," she said. "If that is the scenario, what is the difference between the white explorers and African-American opportunists?"

Mr. Chavis tried to soothe her. "It's not only a case of going over there looking for opportunities to invest," he said. "I'm going home [when I go there] because Africa is the home land."

Nationalist themes

His emphasis on African-American nationalist themes may reflect his deepening relationship with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Certainly he has moved further in that direction since his years at the United Church of Christ, where he eventually rose to head the Commission for Racial Justice.

"The time has come for African-Americans to take greater responsibility for our own uplift," he says. "We should not over-rely on interests outside the community to fund or dictate the goal of our movement. It is a well-known fact that financially the national organizations [such as the NAACP] are funded by corporate interests and philanthropic organizations [Ford Foundation, General Motors, etc.]."

This, he says, limits their freedom of action.

"Our funding will come exclusively from the black community," mostly, he says, from the member organizations themselves, groups like the Nation of Islam, Phi Beta Sigma and others.

For someone who leads an organization trying to foster unity among civil rights organizations, Mr. Chavis seems to be at odds with the current strategies of many of them, much as he was at odds with the historical mission of the NAACP.

"A lot of organizations have abdicated their responsibilities to confront the problem of black on black crime, the drug explosion and violence," he says.

"What we have to do is to redefine what we mean by civil rights" and, he adds, try to eradicate the deep causes of the distress of the black community. Many of these spring from within the community itself, he says.

"One should not blame all the problems of the African-American community on racism. Racism is real, but not the source of all our problems. There are the internal tensions: self-hatred, self-destruction, low self-esteem."

Early activism

Ben Chavis grew up in the civil rights movement. At 12, he boasts, he integrated the library in his hometown of Oxford, N.C. He joined the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress of Racial Equality. While in college he was recruited into the 1.5 million member United Church of Christ, and eventually became an ordained minister.

His father was a brick-mason and school teacher, who also ran a restaurant and grocery story in Oxford. Mr. Chavis suggests he is the source of his son's evident self confidence. "I grew up seeing my father as a self-determined man," he says.

Mr. Chavis gained his first taste of national fame when he and nine others were convicted of firebombing a grocery store in Wilmington, N.C., during riots in 1972. Mr. Chavis, who had been leading protests against unequal treatment of blacks in the public schools, was sentenced to 34 years.

He was paroled in 1979, two years after the Wilmington Ten were declared "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International, and a year before a federal court overturned their conviction. With time in jail for the cause, he gained some heft in a civil rights community crowded with heavyweights like Vernon Jordan, Rev. Joseph Lowery and Benjamin Hooks.

He spent eight years as the head of the Commission for Racial Justice until the call came in 1993 to succeed Mr. Hooks as the head of the country's oldest and most powerful civil rights organization.

He is remembered fondly at United Church of Christ headquarters in Cleveland as a reconciling presence.

Dr. Paul H. Sherry, president of the predominantly white church, and others who worked with him say they are puzzled by what happened to Mr. Chavis at the NAACP. They emphasize that no allegations of sexual harassment or other improprieties were ever brought against him while with the church.

Rev. Chavis says he came to Baltimore knowing he would encounter resistance.

"I was warned. I knew the daggers at the NAACP were already out. My strategy was to out-distance the back stabbers. I didn't intend to let the back stabbers catch up to me." He pauses. "But they did."

Mr. Chavis believes the Stansel case was only a pretext for getting him out of the NAACP, used by certain members of the board of directors to marshal a consensus against him.

Views of the dismissal

Many board members were unhappy with the course he was charting for the NAACP, he says. They were repelled by his attempts to broaden contacts with black nationalist groups, particularly the Nation of Islam.

"The essential issue was whether I had the freedom while in the NAACP to work with the Nation of Islam," he says. "That was the central issue."

Defenders of Mr. Chavis -- and he has many -- concur with most of this.

"In my estimation what went wrong was he tried to change too much too fast," says Larry Wallace, a Virginia attorney and personal friend of Mr. Chavis.

He befriended rap singers, gang members, Islamic militants and separatists in an attempt, he says, to open the NAACP to younger people, "to bring new blood into the organization."

But others in and outside the NAACP reject with a fierce vehemence that Mr. Chavis' dismissal had anything to do with ideological considerations.

"He wasn't fired because he offended people on the board," says Mr. Madison, a board member. "It didn't have anything to do with his philosophy, his politics. It was two things: one, the out-of-control spending; the second thing was the attempted cover-up of the Mary Stansel issue."

The money issue

Ms. Stansel is also one of those people who just won't go away. She has brought suit in Washington demanding that the NAACP turn over the rest of the money Mr. Chavis promised her (without telling the NAACP board). It would amount to about $250,000. She has already received $85,000.

The NAACP has filed a counter suit. It argues that Mr. Chavis was not authorized to promise her such an amount and demands the return of the $85,000. If she doesn't, it wants Mr. Chavis to pay.

Koteles Alexander, one of Mr. Chavis' lawyers, admits his client could find himself ordered to pay up. That would be the worst outcome to a man living in a Howard county house with a $428,000 mortgage, and without the kind of high-paying job he had when he bought it.

Mr. Chavis says he is not being paid to run the newly formed leadership summit. His income is derived from the four or five speeches he makes each month under contract to the American Program Bureaus in Massachusetts, he says. That and the money he is paid to preach in various churches.

Despite the circumstances under which Mr. Chavis was dismissed, the NAACP agreed to meet his mortgage payments for two months and continue his health care for six. "His wife was pregnant," says the NAACP's chief counsel, Dennis Hayes, by way of explanation.

Mr. Chavis says the Stansel allegations did not affect his family life. "It brought our family closer together," he says. He has been married three times and has eight children, four with his first wife Jacqueline and four with his current wife, Martha.

Aversion to obscurity

Nor did the Stansel allegations prompt Mr. Chavis to slink out of town -- as some people were obviously hoping he would.

Evan Golder, editor of United Church News, the paper of the United Church of Christ, could have told them of Ben Chavis' determination to be heard, his aversion to obscurity.

"He didn't disappear, even after all his time in prison," Mr. Golder says.

FTC For Mr. Chavis there is not much comparison between the two major setbacks in his public life -- the one in Wilmington 23 years ago, and that of last August. But there is one similarity:

"I was convinced we would ultimately be exonerated [back then]. I feel the same way in this case."

Exoneration, if it comes, will depend on whether he can make the National African American Leadership Summit viable and use it to project himself once again as a national figure. And it will depend on the success -- or failure -- of the Million Man March.

Though the NAACP, the Rainbow Coalition and similar mainstream civil rights organizations have not officially endorsed the march, there appears to be great enthusiasm for it around the country, says Mr. Madison, whose radio talk show airs in Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit.

"I have the sense there is a lot of support in the Baltimore community for this march," agrees Rodney Orange, head of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Even so, mobilizing 1 million black men won't be easy, Mr. Chavis acknowledges. But his travels around the country have convinced him it can be done.

"The problems of the black community are such that they require a march of this magnitude," he says.

If history is any guide, his chances of success are small. The last time a crowd of 1 million people assembled in Washington was for the Bicentennial fireworks display in 1976, according to the U.S. Park Police.

The largest political demonstration was 600,000 to protest the Vietnam War in 1969.

"If we pull it off, it will be a pivotal moment in our long struggle of this century," Mr. Chavis says.

If they fail, Mr. Chavis will probably have to start his climb all over again.

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