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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Benjamin Chavis Jr. : New Head of NAACP Sets an Impassioned Agenda

April 18, 1993|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for the The Times. She interviewed Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. at a Public School in Watts

Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is a minister, but that might be the most he has in common with his cautious and conservative predecessors at the helm of the venerable National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Chavis is young. He's tough. He's outspoken. He's comfortable with the underclass and the wealthy and everybody in between.

At 45, Chavis is the youngest executive director of the nation's oldest, largest and some would say almost moribund civil-rights organization. He intends to revitalize the historic group, to make it intensely relevant to younger and poorer African-Americans. But some plans, like an NAACP rap song, are sure to be an anathema to the mature, middle-class members who have long been the backbone of the organization.

Chavis set the tone of his tenure by spending his first week on the job in Los Angeles while the jury deliberated in the Rodney G. King federal civil-rights trial. Shunning fancy hotels, he stayed in housing projects in Watts where he talked nonstop to gang leaders, pregnant teens, elected officials and civic leaders.

Fluent in Spanish, Chavis is reaching out to Latinos, Asians and whites. His crusade--and his NAACP transition team--is multiracial and global. His wife, Martha, is from the Dominican Republic.

Chavis came of age in the rural South, in Oxford, N.C., when American race relations were strictly black and white. A civil-rights advocate for much of his life, he was wrongfully convicted on conspiracy and arson charges as one of the Wilmington 10, a group of civil-rights workers accused of firebombing a white-owned grocery. He spent nearly five years in prison before a federal appeals court reversed the conviction.

Prior to his NAACP appointment, Chavis served as the executive director of the Commission for Racial Justice for the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ, a predominantly white denomination. For the past decade, he has championed environmental justice. Because of his expertise, he served on the Clinton-Gore transition team on natural resources.

The father of six, Chavis will soon move to Baltimore, where the NAACP has its headquarters. He plans to set up a computer network and an endowment--but not before his work is accomplished in Los Angeles.

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Question: Is the NAACP relevant to what's happening in Los Angeles today ?

Answer: Yes. The situation in L.A. today is very relevant to the historic mandate of why the NAACP was first established back in 1909 . . . . The NAACP, from the very beginning, was structured to respond to the challenges of racial discrimination.

There is tension now in Los Angeles because of the absence of racial justice, the absence of economic justice, the absence of equal justice under the law. . . . But it's just not a recent thing. We'd have to go back to 1965, to the Watts rebellion, the McCone Commission report . . . . The Kerner Commission concluded that our society was moving toward being two separate societies--one black, one white--separate and unequal.

Today, in 1993, our society is moving toward being multiple societies--black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American--all separate, all unequal. We have not solved the interracial problem between blacks and whites . . . and now the racial divide is being divided into many more pieces.

Q: Is justice on trial in L.A. today?

A: I don't think justice is on trial. The United States is on trial . . . . The world wants to know: Can there be equal justice under the law in the United States of America? How much progress have we really made toward ensuring justice for all people, regardless of the color of the skin of the victim, or the color of the skin of the defendant? . . .

We have a classic situation now in Los Angeles, where the white police officers who have been accused of beating Rodney King, brutally, and unjustly, are on trial this time in federal court. This is not a state situation. This is a federal situation. If the federal courts fail to render justice, it has something to say about the United States of America, in addition to Los Angeles County.

Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times. She interviewed Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. at a public school in Watts.

Q: Do you think justice can possibly be attained without convictions?

A: I don't think justice is possible without convictions. That's the prevailing feeling, certainly in the 'hood, but it's also the prevailing feeling across the United States. One of the reasons you need a National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People is to bring a national perspective to this issue. . . .

L.A. now exemplifies whether or not the United States of America has the opportunity to move into the 21st Century as a truly multiracial, multicultural society. Or, we are going into the 21st Century as a racially divided society. . . .

Q: Would acquittals ever justify another rebellion?

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