CIVIL RIGHTS : Spent by Upheaval, NAACP Must Now Revive Finances, Image : After Chavis, the group is hobbled by debt and doubts. It seeks a new leader and a return to its integrationist roots.
On April 9, 1993, Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the freshly elected NAACP executive director, struck a confrontational pose as he attempted to reverse the moribund image of the 85-year-old civil rights organization.
Sixteen months later, Chavis was history--fired last weekend, in the words of one board member, for racing the group’s engines “too hard, too fast.”
Now it’s back to the future for the NAACP.
For the second time in less than two years, the proud and revered civil rights organization is lurching toward yet another change in direction--away from Chavis’ aggressive black nationalism toward its traditional, integrationist roots.
Even as it does so, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People remains ensnarled in the Chavis fiasco.
On Tuesday, Chavis’ lawyers argued in a Washington federal court that his firing violated NAACP bylaws and would cripple his ability to seek another job. “He has been accused . . . of stealing from the NAACP,” said Abbey Hairston, who represented Chavis at the hearing. “The NAACP has a long history of survival. But what will Dr. Chavis do?”
Chavis is seeking a preliminary injunction to prohibit the NAACP from removing him from his $200,000-a-year job. Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon said he would decide the case this morning.
NAACP attorneys argued that Chavis breached his responsibilities as executive director when, without board knowledge or approval, he disbursed $64,000 of the cash-strapped organization’s money--and promised to spend up to a total of $332,400--to settle a threatened sex discrimination and wrongful discharge suit brought by Mary E. Stansel, a former aide.
“It is critical to the survival of the association to restore the confidence of contributors,” NAACP attorney Lawrence Greenwald told the court.
The NAACP’s problems only begin with its debts.
Another major woe is the search for a new executive director, which will require a time-consuming and potentially divisive sift through a roster of black leaders for someone with the talent, desire and charisma to lead the NAACP. As was the case when Chavis was hired, the demeanor of the next executive director will suggest the public image and posture of the NAACP.
Board members say they were alarmed to learn that Chavis turned a $1.5-million surplus into a $2.7-million deficit. Some say he bankrupted the group by spending lavishly on unbudgeted items, such as trips to South Africa, meetings with gang members and a series of leadership summits for black nationalist leaders.
“He was spending our money like it was Monopoly money,” said board member Marc Stepp.
Gil Jonas, who has been a major NAACP fund-raiser for 30 years, said the board’s “preoccupation has to be with survival, and the way to do that is to rally the 1,200 branches and all of our members” under new leadership.
That point was underscored by Earl T. Shinhoster, one of two interim directors selected to serve until a replacement for Chavis is hired by the board. “Membership and money is the lifeblood of the NAACP,” he said, urging the organization to commit to “a special 30-day campaign to increase money coming into the NAACP.”
The selection of Shinhoster, who had served as the group’s national field secretary before Chavis’ firing, and Fred Rasheed, who had spearheaded the NAACP’s economic development programs, suggest the seriousness the board has placed on untangling its financial situation.
As national field secretary, Shinhoster was the third-ranking NAACP official behind board chairman William F. Gibson and Chavis. Last year, he was one of the four finalists for the executive director’s job.
Rasheed is a longtime NAACP official, best known for developing the group’s Fair Share program, which negotiated business and employment deals on behalf of black Americans with major businesses.
In addition to asking members to contribute more money, the interim leaders pledged to recruit enough new members to push the NAACP’s roster to 1 million by the end of the year and to try to strengthen its administration, management practices and develop new programs to generate revenue.
“I hope the people who have supported the NAACP in the past interpret (Chavis’ firing) as a return to the basic mission of the NAACP,” Jonas said. “That is the first step we have to take to restore the integrity and credibility of our organization so the funders will continue to support us.”
Last time around, the selection of a new executive director took more than a year. Jesse Jackson was the apparent early favorite, with strong support from Gibson. Jewel Jackson McCabe, president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, a New York-based social service organization, mounted a strong pro-feminist challenge to the male leadership of the NAACP.
The board finally settled on Chavis, figuring he was less likely than Jackson to overshadow Gibson and his supporters on the board.
“We are going to be very cautious this time around,” said one board member who supported Chavis’ election a year ago. “As it turned out, the one thing we feared most happened. We got an executive director who did what he wanted and not what the board wanted him to do.”
Said another: “God, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Jesse would look mighty good to us right now.”
Gibson, Shinhoster and other NAACP officials say it’s too early for them to begin speculating on who might be the next executive director. “We should be just as deliberate this time as we were before,” Gibson said.
Said one board member: “I can’t imagine anyone of prominence who would want the job after all we’ve been through.”
Indeed, the board’s search may be frustrated by a paucity of well-known black leaders who are able to span the increasingly diverse interests of African Americans and form congenial ties with supportive corporations and foundations.
Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist who studies black politics, said many black leaders are representatives of narrow interest groups, not national leaders with name recognition or broad constituencies.
Although there is a record number of black elected officials and middle-class blacks who have gained a larger stake in the nation’s mainstream than at any time in history, Dawson frets that “the nation has its lowest level of critical voices in the black community now than at any time in the 20th Century. Most of those in leadership (positions) are all competing about what road black people should take, but none have much of a national following.”
Nevertheless, leadership of the NAACP still is a prize holding tremendous prestige within and beyond the nation’s various black communities, suggesting to NAACP officials that they will have no problem finding a new executive director.
The list of potential choices includes Jackson, Shinhoster and many of those who turned the group down last time: former Atlanta mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young; William H. Gray III, a former congressman from Philadelphia who heads the United Negro College Fund, and Randall Robinson, head of TransAfrica, the Washington-based international lobby.
Perhaps, the new leader will be a woman, given that some women within the NAACP are considering new challenges to the old-school, male leadership of the NAACP.
McCabe has begun campaigning for the job. Board member Myrlie Evers, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and Spelman College President Johnetta Cole are among the names heard most often.