This past November, Bill Clinton delivered what may come to be regarded as one of the most important speeches of his presidency. The subject, black-on-black crime in the inner cities, was an unusual and even risky issue for a white politician to address. Other elected officials, black and white alike, have generally shrunk from serious comment on black crime—whites for fear of being accused of “blaming the victim,” blacks for fear that their words might provide fodder for political adversaries.
Clinton, of course, is a liberal Democrat who has appointed numerous blacks to high positions and endorsed the major items on the civil-rights legislative agenda; he could thus anticipate being welcomed by a black audience—in this case, a convention of clergymen gathered at the church in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his last sermon—as a friend and ally.
Furthermore, Clinton’s speech came in the wake of a well-publicized anti-violence campaign launched by the Reverend Jesse Jackson which focuses on students in inner-city high schools. It has also been suggested that the speech reflected a continuation of Clinton’s successful presidential-campaign strategy of balancing his liberal appeals for activist government with “New Democrat” themes like crime, welfare dependency, and “personal responsibility.”
Yet even if Clinton was motivated by political calculation, this does not detract from the speech’s message, the eloquence of its language, or its passion. Clinton, to be sure, made passing reference to government’s responsibility for the advancement of racial justice. But he resisted the liberal impulse to stress the “root causes” of crime and instead concentrated on its devastating consequences for the people and neighborhoods of black America. While mentioning external factors like unemployment and the reductions in military personnel, he mainly focused on the moral and spiritual dimensions of the dilemma, emphasizing that ultimate responsibility lay with individuals, especially parents, to live a moral life and instill a sense of morality in their children. Were Dr. King to reappear and speak in his own voice, the President speculated, he might say that he had “‘fought to stop white people from being so filled with hate that they would wreak violence on black people. I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandonment.’”
Whether the Memphis speech will be followed by an ambitious legislative package is unclear; even more unclear is the degree to which any federal initiative can enhance the safety of urban streets. But the speech’s significance rests elsewhere, primarily on the contribution it makes to what one hopes may become a healthy new candor in the discussion of racial matters in American political culture.
If this process is to be carried forward, however, a racial leadership is required that will bring to bear a different perspective not simply on the black condition but on the American condition as well. If it was essential for the President to demonstrate that the government is deeply concerned about a problem which many Americans would prefer to ignore, it is also necessary that those who speak for blacks understand the virtues of the American political system.
It is thus ironic that at a time when a potentially more productive atmosphere for the discussion of America’s racial dilemma may be emerging, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest, largest, and most respected black civil-rights organization, has as its new executive director the Reverend Benjamin Chavis, whose career as an activist and writer personifies precisely the mindset that needs to be overcome.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP was at the cutting edge of racial struggle throughout most of this century, and played a critical role in almost all the important legal cases which expanded the boundaries of equality. The 1960’s brought something of a diminution of the organization’s influence, as other civil-rights organizations—the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee—rose to prominence through the use of civil-disobedience tactics and ultra-militant posturing. Yet while these other, more controversial, organizations soon grew enfeebled or succumbed altogether to factional disputes and irresponsible leaders, the NAACP emerged from the 1960’s in comparatively healthy condition, due largely to a shrewd leadership under the late Roy Wilkins and a membership based firmly in the black middle class.
More recently, however, signs of serious decline had begun to appear. Internal sources were questioning official claims of 500,000 members and over 2,000 functioning chapters; more ominously, adjectives like “stuffy,” “irrelevant,” and “moribund” were creeping into press accounts. Speculation about the NAACP’s troubles inevitably focused on the executive director, Benjamin Hooks, a Washington insider and, by today’s standards, a civil-rights moderate, who kept the organization on a traditional course during his tenure (1977-92). There seemed to be a strong feeling that something else was needed: a more “dynamic” leadership and new strategies to advance racial change.
There is no question that Benjamin Chavis, the man appointed last year to succeed Hooks, brings to the organization a dramatically different personal background and leadership style from previous directors. At forty-five, he is the youngest executive director in NAACP history. He also comes to his post as one who served four years in a North Carolina prison over charges stemming from a 1971 civil-rights protest in Wilmington, North Carolina, involving allegations of riot and the firebombing of a grocery store. The accused, Chavis and nine others, were dubbed the “Wilmington Ten,” and their convictions by a state jury were eventually overturned by a federal appeals court.
His biography suggests that Chavis is a person of considerable self-assurance and determination, not easily deterred by adversity. He used his prison years to earn a divinity degree from Duke University, as well as a doctorate from Howard. Upon release, he was hired by the United Church of Christ to work with its Commission on Racial Justice, a position which offered a useful pulpit for the expression of opinions on race relations, international affairs, and American society.
These views, voiced rather freely right up until his assumption of the NAACP post, bear close scrutiny; they reflect a vision of America that is far more pessimistic and hostile than that shared by earlier mainstream civil-rights leaders, and far more akin to the positions taken by extremist organizations of the 60’s—the very positions that have done so much to polarize and cripple race relations in this country.
Thus, Chavis sees America as a thoroughly sick society whose redemption can be found only in the replacement of the present system by something drastically different; and since he has expressed great admiration for Angola under the Soviet-backed MPLA and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, it may be inferred that he would like to import into the U.S. some variant of the state socialism adopted in those countries.
To the Chavis of the 1970’s and 80’s, moreover, the struggle for justice at home was inseparable from the struggle against global “imperialism,” a word which he employed almost as often and as loosely as “racism.” Addressing a 1980 “Stop the Klan” rally in North Carolina, Chavis declared that it was necessary to “unify with progressive forces all over the world and blot out capitalism and imperialism once and for all.” He also attacked President Jimmy Carter’s directive, issued in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to establish Selective Service registration, and announced: “We ain’t gonna fight no more wars for imperialism. . . . We’re going to keep on marching until we tear this system down.” At a time when the Soviets were occupying Afghanistan, threatening Poland, and systematically oppressing Jews and dissidents, Chavis described America as “the greatest violator of human rights in the world.”
During this period, Chavis also lent his name, and often his energies, to several organizations which were closely identified with the American Communist party and in some cases functioned as reliable forums for the dissemination of the Soviet perspective on international politics. Most notable here was his participation in the formation of the United States Peace Council, the American affiliate of the Soviet-controlled World Peace Council, and his serving as co-chairman, along with Angela Davis (an openly declared leader of the American Communist party), of the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression.
Significantly, no international issue, not even South African apartheid, seems to have affected Chavis as deeply as the Palestinian question. Chavis now claims to have an evenhanded stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and strongly denies harboring anti-Semitic prejudices. Yet a careful examination of his political history indicates that the first claim, at least, is patently untrue.
Throughout the 1980’s, Chavis signed numerous protest statements, joined various committees, and spoke at numerous rallies—all with the purpose of attacking Israel, its leaders, and its policies. He signed a 1980 statement denouncing Israel for its deportation of West Bank Palestinian mayors; he served as honorary chairman of a committee to defend a Palestinian “political prisoner,” the terrorist Ziad Abu Eain; he signed a 1982 statement calling on the United States to cut off all military aid to Israel because of its invasion of Lebanon, and another statement beseeching the Nobel Prize board to rescind its 1978 award to Menachem Begin because of the Lebanon incursion; he joined his name to a 1988 petition urging Coretta Scott King to boycott an event at the Israeli embassy at which her late husband was to be honored; and he signed a 1986 statement urging President Reagan to revoke the diplomatic credentials of Major General Amos Yaron, military attaché to the Israeli embassy, for his role in the Lebanon invasion. In 1987, Chavis addressed the founding meeting of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, where he seemed to equate the plight of South African blacks under apartheid with the condition of Palestinians by declaring that “the liberation of our people in Africa and the Middle East is inextricably linked.”
Chavis’s obsession with the Palestinian issue was vividly revealed again during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Like most black clergy, Chavis was strongly opposed to that action, but he alone took the occasion to remind blacks that “undergirding the whole conflict in the Gulf is the unresolved issue of the rights of the Palestinian people.”
While Chavis has bristled at charges of anti-Semitism, he has not been above issuing a gratuitous attack on “Zionism.” He thus told a national conference of the Palestine Human Rights campaign that “Zionism has become racism in the Middle East, and the logical conclusion of racism is genocide, taking your land and your life.” Similarly, this past October, urging a collection of youth gang leaders in Chicago to come together to forge an agreement to end inner-city violence, he likened the idea to the recent treaty between the PLO and “those who call themselves the Israelis.” Chavis has never clarified his use of a vocabulary that is remarkably similar to that employed by people who have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.
On the domestic front, Chavis stands with those who see blacks as the inevitable victims of a pervasively racist social order. As a man consciously identified with the Left, Chavis sometimes adds an international or Marxian twist to his analysis of the American system, such as his judgment that multinational corporations cut jobs here in order to exploit the low-wage labor of the third world.
Usually, though, Chavis restricts his analysis to a single theme: American society is organized around the goal of preventing blacks from rising above their unequal state. He has echoed the increasingly popular cliché that African-Americans are more African than American, and has declared that blacks here are subject to treatment just as brutal as were blacks in apartheid South Africa.
During the 1980’s, Chavis claimed that racism lay behind impeachment proceedings brought against several black judges, and called one impeached judge, Alcee Hastings, a “political dissident.” Likewise, he described criminal indictments of black elected officials as “a deliberate and systematic scheme to prevent further political empowerment of the African-American community”; he singled out then-Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, D.C. (who had been arrested on drug charges) as a prime example of this insidious conspiracy. In a column dealing with violence against Asian-Americans, Chavis managed to evade entirely the very real problem of crime against Asian merchants in black inner-city neighborhoods, restricting his attention instead to a hardly typical case in which an Asian was murdered by two whites.
Perhaps the best known of Chavis’s recent campaigns has been his crusade against “environmental racism,” a phrase he coined in the early 1980’s. According to this concept, black and other minority communities have been disproportionately targeted as the dumping grounds for toxic wastes and other environmental poisons. Chavis and his allies have threatened to create “Selmas of the 90’s” by launching protest offensives against these pollution sites. They have further demanded that a great share of federal environmental grants be channeled to minority organizations.
Chavis has also demonstrated an unusual approach to electoral politics. Although an ardent supporter of Jesse Jackson’s two presidential bids, Chavis is better known as a key organizer of the National Black Independent Political party, a group established in the early 80’s to “advance self-determination for the black nation.” He has voiced enthusiasm for a level of partisan political participation by black clergy which would elicit howls of condemnation if expressed by a figure from the religious Right. Chavis was also instrumental in organizing a peculiar mission in 1987: a delegation, led by him, of “reverse freedom riders” from the South to assist in the reelection campaign of Harold Washington, the black mayor of Chicago. To Chavis, the Chicago race differed hardly at all from a 1960’s voting-rights drive in Alabama, despite the fact that Washington was an incumbent mayor of a large multiracial city where blacks had been an important part of the political structure for decades.
For whatever reason—Chavis’s personal charm, a general unfamiliarity with his opinions, or perhaps the well-documented shift to the Left in political attitudes among American liberals—Chavis’s radicalism did not impede his winning acceptance within the halls of white liberal power. Thus, despite the fact that Chavis had proposed placing “Wanted” posters in inner-city neighborhoods bearing the names and photographs of policemen accused of abuse, a few years ago New York Governor Mario Cuomo appointed him to a special task force on bias-related violence. More recently, he was named to the Clinton administration transition team on environmental policy, apparently at the personal behest of Vice President Al Gore, and he is known to boast of his access to the administration.
When, shortly after his election as NAACP chief, Chavis was asked by an interviewer how he would convince whites to heed his message of racial change, he answered that he had “the capacity to talk to whites about racial justice . . . in a way that does not frighten them to death.”
These were interesting words from a man who, not long before, had been full of talk about smashing imperialism, tearing down capitalism, and preventing the American government from committing racist genocide. Since assuming leadership of the country’s most important black organization, Chavis has, it is true, followed a course of rhetorical prudence—while also saying or doing nothing which would indicate that he has altered or even adjusted his past convictions about the moral sickness of America and its democratic institutions.
To the contrary, Chavis has methodically instituted a series of organizational changes which suggest that he takes quite seriously the mission of transforming not just the NAACP but the whole strategy and direction of black politics.
He has, for example, begun to fill the NAACP staff with individuals who share his leftist political orientation. He hired Don Rojas, a former aide to Grenada’s New Jewel Movement leader, Maurice Bishop, as director of communications, and named Lewis Myers, an attorney who once represented Louis Farrakhan, as deputy executive director. Among Myers’s credentials is an article which appeared in the Nation of Islam’s newspaper criticizing civil-rights organizations for seeking financial support from “the Zionist movement in America,” a movement “working to defeat the progress of our people both here and abroad.”
Chavis has announced plans to “internationalize” the NAACP by forming chapters in various Caribbean countries and in South Africa. He has also launched a major drive to enhance the NAACP’s influence in the inner city, especially among young blacks. Thus far, his principal initiative on this front has been a campaign to encourage “peace treaties” between big-city youth gangs. A central part of this campaign was a highly publicized national summit meeting of gang leaders from around the country held in Kansas City, at which a package of demands was put forward, calling not only for the cessation of violence but also for the abolition of all anti-gang legislation and for aggressive federal action to root out police brutality.
Finally, and most importantly, Chavis has vigorously pushed an already existing project, the NAACP’s “fair-share” campaign, to pressure large corporations to hire more blacks and otherwise invest in the black community. It goes without saying that companies that balk at meeting the fair-share demands face the prospect of unfavorable publicity, litigation, and boycotts.
Chavis’s attempt to move the NAACP, and, by extension, the entire civil-rights movement, on a bold new activist course has much about it that is eerily and disturbingly familiar. The proposal to internationalize the civil-rights organization is reminiscent of the “internationalist” perspective of the Black Panthers and other elements of the hard Left in the 60’s, the result of which was to foster a disgraceful affinity with “revolutionary” third-world tyrants like Sékou Touré of Guinea. Similarly, Chavis’s work with gang leaders has its precedent in the early anti-poverty program, when the Office of Economic Opportunity channeled community-action funds through the Blackstone Rangers and other urban gangs, a policy which contributed mightily to the discrediting of the anti-poverty effort. As for the fair-share drive, it brings to mind the early campaigns launched by Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, when companies were threatened with boycotts if they failed to hire enough blacks or purchase enough products from minority-owned subcontractors.
In sum, the true significance of Chavis’s agenda is this: under his leadership, the NAACP, historically the most mainstream and biracial civil-rights organization, now espouses a position once held only by the most radical organizations and personalities within the black community.
Ratifying this new position is the alliance recently struck among the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and Louis Farrakhan. Although recent black history includes many instances of leadership summits comprised of militants, separatists, nationalists, and adherents of various Marxist creeds, never before has the NAACP been involved. Yet Chavis not only participated in the recent black summit, he actually engineered the unprecedented link with Farrakhan, black America’s most notorious race demagogue and anti-Semite.
At the summit, Chavis publicly announced that those who had organized the events marking the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, were mistaken to have excluded Farrakhan from the roster of speakers. Adding that it had also been wrong for Farrakhan to have publicly criticized civil-rights leaders, he concluded that he nevertheless “love[d]” and “respect[ed]” the Nation of Islam leader.
It is inconceivable that Chavis, Congressman Kweisi Mfume (chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus), and the others responsible for orchestrating the rapprochement with Farrakhan did not realize that the move would be perceived as a deliberate insult by many Jews. Although Farrakhan’s reputation as an anti-Semite derives mainly from his declaration that Judaism is a “gutter religion,” this one quotation constitutes but a small part of the record. Farrakhan is, in fact, obsessed with Jews and their presumed influence over American society, to which he constantly refers in speeches and sermons in a way calculated to appeal to every feeling of anti-Jewish prejudice, dislike, and envy harbored by his predominantly middle-class audience. True to form, he dragged in the Jewish issue during the controversy over his exclusion from the March on Washington anniversary, claiming that “Jewish leaders have made me a litmus test for those who expect money from Jewish interests.”
In this context, the partial justification put forward by several participants in the leadership meeting—that unity was important, given the programmatic goals Farrakhan and the others share—resonates as less than convincing. For Farrakhan has often been dismissive toward the traditional political goals of the civil-rights movement and the Congressional Black Caucus, and has even attacked one of their favorite programs, affirmative action, because the policy encourages dependency on white society.
Be that as it may, it would seem that racial or religious tolerance is no longer an absolute requirement for acceptance into the ranks of black leadership. This is a breathtaking shift in ethical standards for a movement whose presumed purpose is to fight all manifestations of bigotry and racism.
The coalition with Farrakhan is the clearest evidence that Chavis retains the radical convictions which inspired his political conduct in the not-so-distant past. It also suggests the answer to an inevitable question: at a time when Communism is dead, and Israel and the PLO are fervently engaged in peacemaking, does it make any difference that Benjamin Chavis championed Leninist political movements, or adopted a relentlessly anti-Israel stance during the 1980’s?
One part of the answer is that to have sided with the international authoritarian Left most certainly does say something about Chavis’s (or anyone’s) judgment and even his sense of political morals, especially when there is no inkling that he has reassessed those previous allegiances. Many in the Communist world did, after all, undergo a genuine change of heart, and openly acknowledged a preference for democracy over state socialism. Chavis, for his part, gives no indication of having changed his mind.
A more important part of the answer, however, has to do not with what Chavis once thought of the New Jewel Movement or the Sandinistas, but what he thought, and now thinks, about America. About the past the record is clear: America in Chavis’s view was a society in which racial (as well as class and gender) injustice was deliberately built into the basic economic and political institutions. Chavis, in fact, frequently considered the black plight dire enough to use the word “genocide” when setting forth his vision of America’s racial future. And as for today, now that he has reached a position of power and respect in this supposedly oppressive society, he has proceeded to launch initiatives in line with his past analysis.
That these initiatives can help to work an improvement in our racial climate, or contribute to the advancement of America’s most impoverished and crisis-ridden people, is, to say the least, highly unlikely. Far more likely is it that they will exacerbate divisions between the races, enhance the already inflamed sense of black victimization, and lead us backward from the hopeful new direction signaled by Bill Clinton in Memphis.