Chavis’ First NAACP Convention Comes Amid Praise, Dissension
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Taking over the NAACP this spring, Benjamin Chavis urged a sprint to corporate board rooms and crime-ridden streets to fight for the civil rights cause.
But amid dissension, the troops so far have mustered only a lurching walk. And some of Chavis’ early efforts to energize the 84-year-old NAACP have brought him unexpected trouble.
For example, some in the organization are upset about a recent board stance in favor of gay rights. And some were not pleased by a his statement suggesting support for a pro football franchise in Charlotte, N.C., over the NAACP’s home city of Baltimore.
Still, anticipation is high as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People begins its annual meeting Saturday.
South African activist Nelson Mandela will address the opening session, and Vice President Al Gore is slated to speak. At least 15,000 delegates are expected in Indianapolis for the first gathering under the young and energetic leadership of Chavis.
″We plan, at this convention, to refocus the civil rights agenda for America,″ Chavis said in an interview. ″The response so far has been tremendous.″
Delegates from more than 600 NAACP branches have pre-registered for the meeting, up from last year’s 400, said NAACP spokesman Don Rojas. Those early figures exceed the pre-registration of the past five conventions, Rojas said.
But the numbers include a diverse range of opinion, and the dissatisfied among them plan to voice those opinions in Indianapolis. At least one protest is planned, against a resolution the NAACP board passed in support of homosexuals in the military.
″Everyone we have talked to on this issue has expressed astonishment at this,″ said Jackie Cissel, a protest organizer. ″They cannot believe that an organization that’s one of the most respected in the country would buy into the homosexual movement.″
Chavis said he didn’t feel most of the NAACP’s estimated 500,000 members were against the resolution - ″That’s a minor splinter group″ - but said he would not try to suppress discussion of the issue.
″If you look at who’s in our branches, it covers the whole spectrum of political persuasion,″ Chavis said. ″When the NAACP takes a position on these issues, that’s not to say there always will be total agreement.″
To W. Gregory Wims, president of the Montgomery County, Md., branch, the issue is not an endorsement of gay rights, but whether the NAACP board will make decisions about morality without polling members.
″We were not informed that this was an issue coming up before the board,″ Wims said. ″We want to make sure that any issues that come up that affect what we call the morality concerns, that all voices are heard. We sent a message that if anything like this came up again, they would have to send out for some feedback.″
Decisions without consulting the membership also was an issue in Chavis’ hurried apology for statements that suggested the NAACP supported a National Football League expansion bid by Charlotte over Baltimore, where its headquarters are located.
The issue came up after Chavis and board chairman William Gibson signed a ″fair share agreement″ spelling out incentives for blacks with Flagstar Companies, owner of the Denny’s restaurant chain, and Richardson Sports- Carolinas Stadium Corp., which is seeking the NFL team.
The statement prompted board member T.H. Poole, head of the Florida NAACP, to say that only the full 64-member board, and not Chavis and Gibson, had the authority to make such an endorsement. And the board had not done so.
″At best, it could have been a loose statement by one of the parties, not an endorsement,″ Poole said.
Wims said he isn’t inclined to fault Chavis. But he does plan to question the board.
″The folks are very pleased with Dr. Chavis. I think he has strong support throughout the nation,″ Wims said. ″The board has to take responsibility. They can’t let Dr. Chavis be out there by himself.″