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The 85-year-old NAACP is at a crossroads. Although Benjamin Chavis had made a major effort to reach out to the young, his firing as executive director of the nation's premier civil rights organization was a wise move.

Chavis' combative 17-month tenure included charges that he had generated a $2.7 million deficit, committed $322,000 in organization money to settle a sexual harassment claim against him by a former employee, and steered the organization away from the moderate course it has always maintained through a questionable alliance with Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam, who is known for his anti-Semitic remarks.In June, in the name of the NAACP, Chavis hosted the first summit of black leaders on the assumption that the best and brightest could produce an agenda for curing crime and economic despair in the nation's cities.

It was at this meeting that Chavis embraced Farrakhan. Many NAACP members were understandably concerned then that Chavis was trying to transform the organization from a mainstream, pro-integration movement into one that calls for the creation of a separate black nation.

Although the increasingly radical Chavis shows no signs of slipping away quietly, the NAACP board of directors had no choice but to take the step they did. The integrity of the organization was at stake.

Until a new executive director can be put in place, the civil rights agenda will almost certainly be slowed.

There will be increased publicity about Farrakhan - and his new adjunct, Chavis - as they continue to draw crowds of thousands of black men to hear lectures about self-esteem and responsibility.

The firing may even temporarily threaten the membership base of the NAACP, but the organization will not only prevail, it will benefit by its bold, moral action.

Earl Shinhoster, the capable 17-year administrative veteran of the NAACP, who has been appointed interim director, was Chavis' competition to succeed Benjamin Hooks as executive director in 1993. He plans to exercise quick leadership to try to reinvigorate the 2,200 branches of the NAACP.

Shinhoster is expected to provide dependable direction until the board names a permanent successor in the next 30 to 90 days. In any event, the new beginning symbolized by Chavis' exit is to be applauded. The board acted on principle at a time when such courageous action was clearly in order.