Disgraced black rights boss shown the door

THE UNITED STATES' oldest, largest and most prestigious civil rights organisation was struggling to regroup yesterday after the bitterly divisive sacking of its director of 17 months for financial mismanagement, and problems arising from a sexual harassment suit in which he is embroiled.

After a 10-hour closed door debate on Saturday at their Baltimore headquarters, the 64-strong board of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, voted 'overwhelmingly' to remove Benjamin Chavis. But some of his supporters wept at the decision, while others were reported to have tried to storm the board's meeting room as word of the decision leaked out.

Mr Chavis claimed afterwards he was a victim of a 'lynching' mounted by 'forces outside the African-American community and a small number of NAACP officials' who opposed his attempts to revitalise the 90-year-old body, once the most influential mouthpiece of black America.

And indeed, many of the NAACP old guard have been dismayed at Mr Chavis overtures to some of the most controversial elements in the black community, including inner-city gang leaders, rap stars, and the radical Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. But Mr Chavis argued that only thus could the organisation regain its authority among the young. Despite his departure, a second NAACP-sponsored black summit, with invitees including Mr Farrakhan, is due this week to agree a strategy to tackle the crime, poverty and despair affecting large swathes of the black community.

His downfall, however, was precipitated by an abrupt deterioration in NAACP finances. A surplus of dollars 600,000 ( pounds 389,000) has turned into a deficit of dollars 3m, and key donors were withholding contributions pending clarification. Giving extra ammunition to Mr Chavis' foes have been embarrassing sexual allegations against him.

One woman last week withdrew claims she had been sexually harassed by Mr Chavis, saying reports to that effect had been a 'misunderstanding'. But the most damaging charges came from a former aide, Mary Stansel, who has sued Mr Chavis, alleging that he backed out of a dollars 332,000 private settlement of sexual discrimination complaints she brought when she was dismissed last year.

The NAACP board was shocked that they had not been informed of the arrangement, despite the fact that the money was to be paid from its own funds. The sum of dollars 82,000 was paid, but Ms Stansel alleges that Mr Chavis reneged on a commitment to pay dollars 250,000 after he failed to find her a suitable new job as he had promised. Mr Chavis denies any wrongdoing, and is countersuing.

The organisation has been placed under interim management until a new director is named, probably in about two months.