Chavis May Form Group to Rival NAACP : Civil rights: Ousted leader welcomes Farrakhan, 60 other black activists at summit that the national organization had said was postponed.
Ousted NAACP head Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. rebounded Sunday from his firing by embracing controversial Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan at a black leadership summit. At the same time, there was speculation that Chavis is organizing a new, grass-roots organization to challenge the nation’s oldest civil rights group.
As the NAACP board began its search for a new executive director, Chavis welcomed Farrakhan and about 60 other black activists to a summit that included representatives of community organizations, fraternities and sororities, and religious groups.
In doing so, Chavis contradicted NAACP Chairman William F. Gibson, who had informed reporters after Chavis’ dismissal Saturday night that the summit had been postponed. The 2 1/2-day series of private strategy sessions and public town hall meetings was relocated from the NAACP headquarters to two black churches here.
“We’re going to move forward,” Chavis said in his opening address at the National African American Leadership Summit. “We’re not going to let what happened yesterday pull us back.”
Describing Chavis’ conduct during his 16-month tenure as “inimical to the best interests” of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Gibson declined to say precisely why the board--for the first time in its 85-year history--fired its executive director.
The phrasing of the board’s resolution, however, was broad enough to cover a range of complaints against Chavis, including his use of NAACP money to pay a former employee $332,400 to settle her threatened suit charging him with sex discrimination and wrongful discharge, as well as his attempts to redirect the group to appeal to younger, more confrontational members.
Chavis’ remarks immediately after being fired Saturday night and a day later at the summit suggested that he is laying the foundation for a new group aimed at “mobilizing the masses” of young and poor blacks who supported him as NAACP head.
“I feel good,” Chavis shouted to the summit participants, sounding like soul singer James Brown. “As I reflect back now . . . I recall my election (as NAACP executive director) took place on Good Friday in 1993. Now there’s been a crucifixion, but today we celebrate the resurrection.”
Rodney Orange, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP and one of Chavis’ strongest supporters within the organization, said he sensed that Chavis was testing his support for a rival group.
Orange said the NAACP board would respond to such a challenge by “deciding what role it wants to play with respect to the grass roots. Once things settle down, I think they would have to get involved with that process. They have wanted to do that all along, but they were concerned with how Dr. Chavis was doing it and how fast he was doing it.”
In a news conference immediately following his dismissal, an emotional but defiant Chavis promised he wouldn’t fade from the civil rights spotlight even if the NAACP no longer wanted his leadership.
And he added: “This is unity time. We’ll stay together come hell and high water.”
The leadership summit that began Sunday is a follow-up to a similar meeting held last June and was one of the more controversial NAACP programs during Chavis’ leadership. Many board members objected to Chavis’ invitation to Farrakhan, fearing his presence would cast a negative light on the more mainstream civil rights organization. The Nation of Islam leader is perceived by some blacks and whites as anti-white and anti-Semitic.
But Chavis scoffed at such concerns, arguing that the NAACP under his leadership would not be told what to do. As Farrakhan beamed with obvious satisfaction, Chavis repeated that pledge Sunday, saying: “As you heard me say at the conclusion of the last summit, never again would we allow forces outside of the African American community to dictate to us whom we should meet with, when we should meet and what we should meet about.”
Chavis said all of the participants of the previous summit were invited back, but many of the better known black figures who had attended the previous meeting--including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) and Harvard University professor Cornell West--were not present at the opening session.
“Over the next 2 1/2 days we have a lot of hard work to do,” Chavis said, noting the attendees would focus on black economic development, youth employment and moral development of the African American community.
Chavis said that since he is no longer being held back by the NAACP board, “I feel a little liberated right now. I do not have a straitjacket on.”