Sex Scandal Forces Dismissal of NAACP Chief Benjamin Chavis Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the NAACP, lost his job for agreeing to an out-of-court monetary settlement to be paid to his assistant, Mary E. Stansel, to forestall a sexual harassment and sex discrimination lawsuit against him and the NAACP. He had paid Stansel using NAACP funds without the permission or the knowledge of the organization. A court later ruled that the NAACP would not have to pay any part of the original settlement, and it ordered Stansel to return the funds she already received.

Summary of Event

Benjamin Chavis was appointed executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in April, 1993. Seventeen months later he was dismissed as director when it was discovered that he had agreed to an out-of-court settlement with his former executive assistant, Mary E. Stansel, to keep her from suing both Chavis and the NAACP for sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and violating her civil rights. Chavis agreed to pay Stansel more than $80,000 from NAACP funds without the knowledge of its board or general counsel. On August 21, 1994, the NAACP board overwhelmingly voted to dismiss Chavis, concluding that his actions were inimical to the best interests of the organization. In turn, Chavis called his ouster a “lynching.” [kw]Sex Scandal Forces Dismissal of NAACP Chief Benjamin Chavis (Aug. 21, 1994) [kw]NAACP Chief Benjamin Chavis, Sex Scandal Forces Dismissal of (Aug. 21, 1994) [kw]Chavis, Sex Scandal Forces Dismissal of NAACP Chief Benjamin (Aug. 21, 1994) Chavis, Benjamin National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Sexual harassment;and Benjamin Chavis[Chavis] Chavis, Benjamin National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Sexual harassment;and Benjamin Chavis[Chavis] [g]United States;Aug. 21, 1994: Sex Scandal Forces Dismissal of NAACP Chief Benjamin Chavis[02700] [c]Law and the courts;Aug. 21, 1994: Sex Scandal Forces Dismissal of NAACP Chief Benjamin Chavis[02700] [c]Sex crimes;Aug. 21, 1994: Sex Scandal Forces Dismissal of NAACP Chief Benjamin Chavis[02700] [c]Women’s issues;Aug. 21, 1994: Sex Scandal Forces Dismissal of NAACP Chief Benjamin Chavis[02700] Stansel, Mary E.

While Chavis may have been within his powers as executive director to settle a suit against the NAACP, it remains questionable whether he should have used the organization’s funds to settle the accusations against himself. The settlement between Chavis and Stansel, signed on November 12, 1993, consisted of cash and an agreement that Chavis would find her another job outside the NAACP. In late July, 1994, the NAACP found out about the agreement. Stansel, who had been Chavis’s executive assistant for less than two months, filed suit against Chavis and the NAACP on June 30 for breach of contract. In court papers, she indicated that she already had received around $77,000, most of that from NAACP coffers, of an agreed-upon $80,000. Furthermore, Chavis had agreed to pay her an additional $250,000 were he to fail in finding her another job paying a salary of at least $80,000 within six months. Stansel sued when the deal fell through.

Chavis, an African American civil rights and religious leader, was born to educators and civil rights activists and was an activist from an early age. He was involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and school desegregation in North Carolina. In 1976, he was convicted, with nine other desegregationists known collectively as the Wilmington Ten, for arson, firebombing, and conspiracy to commit assault. Chavis was sentenced to thirty-four years in prison and the others to ten years. After a lengthy battle that made international headlines, all ten were exonerated and released in 1980.

Chavis attended college while in prison and wrote the books An American Political Prisoner Appeals for Human Rights in the United States of America (1978) and Psalms from Prison (1983). He earned a bachelor of arts degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina, a master of divinity degree from Duke University, and a doctor of ministry degree from Howard University. He also completed the course requirements for a doctor of philosophy degree from Union Theological Seminary. He was a youth coordinator in North Carolina for the Reverend Martin Luther King, Martin Luther, Jr. King, Jr., and the SCLC and then returned to Oxford, North Carolina, and taught at the all-black Mary Potter High School. He was a minister in the United Church of Christ during the 1980’s and led the church’s Commission for Racial Justice. Chavis is credited with coining the term “environmental racism,” "Environmental racism"[environmental racism] a form of discrimination whereby, to take one example, a disproportionate number of toxic and hazardous materials waste sites and facilities are located within neighborhoods with many ethnic and racial minorities. His influential study Toxic Waste and Race in the United States of America was published in 1986.

According to his lawyer, Chavis agreed to the settlement with Stansel under duress. He wanted to avoid bad publicity and questions about his credibility. Other concerns about Chavis’s tenure at the NAACP might have contributed to his dismissal. He was already under fire from some board members for his unorthodox practices, including reaching out to the Nation of Nation of Islam Islam and to gang members. There was concern about how he handled NAACP finances. The organization was facing mounting debt and declining membership, and many within the NAACP believed Chavis’s legal troubles had been affecting donations. Chavis, however, maintained that membership was growing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Some of the larger contributors and supporters, such as the Ford Foundation Ford Foundation, began to question the effectiveness of the NAACP. Some also believed that Chavis’s unorthodox methods were leading the organization away from its original goals.

As the board was meeting to determine Chavis’s future with the NAACP, Susan Tisdale, who had worked as a secretary for Chavis’s wife, Martha, sent a memo to the board, indicating that she was initiating a sexual harassment suit against Chavis. However, Tisdale dropped the matter, saying the accusation of sexual harassment was a misunderstanding. Nevertheless, Chavis was dismissed by the board on August 21, 1994.

Impact

Being dismissed as head of the NAACP did not affect Chavis’s career. He became the executive director of the National African American Leadership Summit in 1995 and was appointed national director of the Million Man March on Washington, D.C., in October, 1995. Two years later, in 1997, he became a member and a minister of the Nation of Nation of Islam Islam, changed his surname to Muhammad, and soon was named the organization’s East Coast regional minister. He organized the Million Family March in 2000. In 2001, he became the cochairman and chief executive officer of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN) in collaboration with entrepreneur Russell Simmons. The HHSAN is a coalition of community members and activists and hip-hop artists dedicated to fighting for justice and against poverty among African Americans.

Stansel had sued both Chavis and the NAACP as responsible parties, but a Washington, D.C., court ruled that the NAACP was not financially liable for any part of the settlement between Stansel and Chavis. The court ordered Stansel to return the money she had already received from the organization.

The NAACP sought to recover from the Chavis scandal and its own mounting debt. Organization leaders pledged to restore the NAACP’s reputation. Evers-Williams, Myrlie Myrlie Evers-Williams, a civil rights activist and the wife of slain NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, was elected chair, thereby becoming the first woman to head the organization. Mfume, Kweisi Kweisi Mfume, a U.S. representative from Maryland, was appointed the new executive director. A Democrat, Mfume gave up his congressional seat in 1996 to take the position at the NAACP, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. With Evers-Williams and Mfume at the helm, the NAACP managed to pull itself out of debt but still suffered some image problems. Chavis, Benjamin National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Sexual harassment;and Benjamin Chavis[Chavis]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jonas, Gilbert. Freedom’s Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909-1969. New York: Routledge, 2005. A comprehensive history of the beginnings of the NAACP up to 1969. The author, a member of the NAACP for more than fifty years, is a journalist and civil rights activist. Includes a foreword by civil rights leader Julian Bond.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Anna-Maria. Confronting Sexual Harassment: The Law and Politics of Everyday Life. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005. Examines law, social change, and the politics of workers’ everyday lives. Also provides a framework for studying issues of everyday life, especially in the workplace.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell-Brown, Katheryn. Protecting Our Own: Race, Crime, and African Americans. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Law professor Russell-Brown explores ideas of “black protectionism” and “linked fate” among African Americans during times of scandal involving black public figures, including Benjamin Chavis, and media focus on crimes committed by blacks. Argues that protectionism extends to all races.

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