An Uncivil War

updated 09/05/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVEN AS A BOY IN OXFORD, N.C., Benjamin Chavis was a battler. The spunky youngster was only 13 when he committed his first act of civil disobedience—demanding a book from the town's whites-only library. That was just around the time his father, a brick mason, gave him a "badge of honor"—his very own membership in the NAACP. Three decades later the civil rights activist and United Church of Christ minister is still fighting. Only this time his target is the venerable civil rights organization itself.

Chavis has a Sept. 2 court date to square off against the NAACP over his dismissal from the $200,000-a-year post of executive director—unless he and the group can negotiate a settlement. He got the boot Aug. 20 following revelations about his secret agreement to pay up to $332,400 in NAACP funds to head off a former staffer's sex discrimination and harassment lawsuit. If the settlement offers don't satisfy him, he said he'll be back. "All I want is fair treatment from the NAACP," Chavis said. "I am confident that when this matter reaches the courts, I will be vindicated."

Throughout his tempestuous 16-month reign, Chavis's biggest battles seemed internecine—largely concerning spending and organizational direction—which insiders say helped seal his fate. "Have you heard the NAACP mentioned on any of these big issues going on out there [like the anticrime bill and Haiti]?" asked one board member opposed to Chavis. "We have been paralyzed by Chavis and all the mess he has created." Chavis, too, found the struggle debilitating. In the days before his dismissal, he says, he would return to his suburban Baltimore home so tired he could barely stand. He notes he drew strength from his wife, Martha (pregnant with twins), with whom he knelt in prayer on their bedroom floor every morning, and from their children Franklin, 4, and Ana, 3. (He also has four grown children.)

Chavis started earning his activist credentials in the late '60s. During the next decade he spent more than four years in prison for the firebombing of a white-owned North Carolina grocery store. His conviction was overturned after three chief prosecution witnesses admitted they lied. Following his release, Chavis assumed an increasingly high profile on the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice. Then came the NAACP. Chavis continually rocked the boat as he struggled to change the direction of an organization seen by critics as past its prime and irrelevant. Chavis alarmed the group's aging mainstream constituency and corporate contributors with overtures to younger and more radical elements, including street gangs and separatist Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. "You don't get young people back by just making speeches," he says. "You've gotta get out there in the 'hood."

Chavis claimed his "outreach" was netting tens of thousands of new, younger members, but critics held him responsible for much of the NAACP's mounting debt of about $3 million. (Chavis contends he inherited a $2 million deficit, while his predecessor, Benjamin Hooks, claims to have left a $600,000 surplus.) Opposition heated up considerably with the recent disclosure of clandestine payments of more than $75,000 to Mary E. Stansel, 49, a Washington lawyer who had served as Chavis's executive aide for only six weeks after working her contacts to help him win his NAACP chairmanship. Then came reports that Susan Tisdale, 32, an aide to Chavis's wife at the NAACP's women's auxiliary, was asking for $100,000 in compensation for sexual harassment—reportedly by Chavis—and wrongful termination.

Chavis continues to insist he did nothing wrong. He says he agreed to the deal with Stansel, who has filed numerous lawsuits in the past—against, among others, Eastern Airlines, the National Bar Association and an 81-year-old woman who sold her a row house—"with one purpose in mind: to protect the NAACP." Only last year, he points out, the NAACP lost a costly workmen's compensation case. "We were assessed a $680,000 judgment for something that should never have been litigated," Chavis says. "I made the prevent the replication of what had just happened."

In the end, Chavis's explanations failed to sway board members angered at being kept in the dark. The outcome certainly didn't take him by surprise. "The problem that besets African-Americans is not that we don't have leadership," Chavis says. "The problem is that we just don't work together."

TOM NUGENT in Baltimore and Washington

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