Benjamin Chavis

Lifelong political activist Benjamin Chavis (born 1948) overcame racial injustice and wrongful imprisonment to become a vocal leader in the civil rights movement.

The first political act of Benjamin Chavis came when he was a wide-eyed 13 year old. On his way home from school each day, Chavis would pass a whites-only library in Oxford, North Carolina. One day, tired of tattered hand-me-downs and desirous of a book with two intact covers on it, he boldly walked into the library. The librarians told him to leave, but he questioned that demand. "He asked why," a childhood friend told the New York Times. "A lot of us when we were told to go away … would just do so, but Ben would always challenge, always ask why." The librarians called his parents, but the incident, like the spunkiness of the boy at its center, could not be calmed, and tempers flared. In a short time, the library was opened to all races. A child's simple act of disobedience and intellectual curiosity had shattered the overt racism of an institution whose sole mission, young Chavis knew, should have been the enrichment of minds—those of blacks and whites.

Descended from Activists

The Reverend Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Jr., was born in 1948 in Oxford, North Carolina, into a long and distinguished line of preachers. His great-great-grandfather, John Chavis, is considered to be the first black graduate of Princeton University because he graduated from a New Jersey seminary that later became the university. John Chavis, according to Benjamin, was killed in 1938 for teaching black children to read and write.

In the mid-twentieth century, even as the walls of segregation began to tumble, many racist elements thrived in the United States, particularly in the South. But even though the nation's military services were integrated in the year of Benjamin Chavis's birth, and a judicial decision six years later struck down the practice of "separate but equal" education, closed-minded whites in some areas vehemently defended their racist institutions and laws. The worldviews of civil rights leaders like Chavis and Martin Luther King, Jr., were shaped against this backdrop of hatred and bigotry.

In 1968—the year of King's assassination, which some observers feel brought an end to the modern civil rights era—Chavis became a field officer for the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice. The Commission, organized in 1963 in response to the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the infamous Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing, coordinated racial justice strategies for national and regional organizations and spear-headed community organization and criminal justice campaigns.

In February of 1971, Chavis was in Wilmington, North Carolina, to drum up support for a school desegregation lawsuit that had been brought by the NAACP. On a night of racial violence, one of many in a season of escalating tension, Mike's Grocery, a white-owned store in a black part of town, was firebombed. A year later, the Wilmington 10 (as the nine black men, including Chavis, and one white woman came to be known) were convicted of arson and conspiracy and sentenced to a combined total of 282 years in prison, with the lengthiest term, 34 years, slapped on Chavis.

World Focused on his Imprisonment

The case immediately garnered worldwide attention and became a celebrated focus of the civil rights movement in the United States. Defense attorneys cited 2,685 errors in the trial, but appeals were denied, and the convicted agitators went to prison in 1976. A year later, Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog agency, listed the ten as political prisoners. Ironically, the NAACP—the organization that Chavis had joined when he was only 12 years old and would one day head—was seen by some as offering one of the weakest responses to the obviously wrongful convictions.

While in prison, Chavis, who had been taught by King to see the positive in a negative experience, was frequently escorted in leg irons and handcuffs to Duke University, where he earned a master's degree from the divinity school under a study-release program. A disciplined student—he had taken his undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1969—Chavis dodged the prison's strict, 10 P.M., lights-out rule by reading his school books in the bathroom, which was lighted all night.

The Wilmington 10 case took a dramatic turn when three principal prosecution witnesses from the trial admitted they had made up their stories after being pressured by local law enforcement authorities. North Carolina governor James Hunt reduced the sentences but left the convictions intact. Finally in 1980, after Chavis and the other activists had been paroled, a Justice Department investigation led to a federal appellate court's reversal of the convictions. "Our case was a victory for the whole movement," Chavis noted in Newsweek. "It showed people what is possible."

In 1983, two years after receiving his doctorate in divinity from Howard University, Chavis returned to the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice as deputy director. (The commission was one of several groups that had championed the release of the Wilmington 10.) By 1985, Chavis had been elected executive director of the commission and soon emerged as a national figure willing to exercise his preacher's oratory on a wide variety of racial and social justice issues in the United States. He organized gang summits to denounce the skyrocketing violence, high drop-out rate, and rampant drug involvement plaguing America's young people. He also participated in mainstream national politics, lobbying with other black leaders against U.S. aid to Angolan rebels fighting the Marxist regime of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and serving as the clergy coordinator for the Reverend Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign.

Pioneered Concept of "Environmental Racism"

During his tenure at the Commission for Racial Justice, Chavis became most associated with the burgeoning environmental movement. In 1983 Chavis had joined in a protest against the depositing of tons of contaminated soil in rural Warren County, North Carolina, where the population was 75 percent black—the highest concentration of black citizens in the state—and mostly poor. Although the Warren County battle was lost, the protesters succeeded in shelving the state's plans to put another landfill and an incinerator in the area. Chavis, educated in school as a chemist and in the streets as an activist, saw the political issue clearly: industry's garbage was being foisted on the lower-class, politically unempowered members of society.

Coining the term "environmental racism," Chavis ordered a study that documented the extent of the crisis: three of the five largest toxic waste landfills in the country were in minority neighborhoods. Chavis spared few in his condemnation of this previously overlooked embodiment of racism. He chastised federal, state, and local governments; the mainstream environmental organizations, which were headed by whites and, in his view, cared more about the integrity of a wetland than the health of a black person; and big businesses that cavalierly promised jobs in impoverished communities in exchange for support of environmentally ruinous industries. "One of the responsibilities of the civil rights movement is to define the postmodern manifestations of racism," Chavis explained in Ebony. "We must not only point to overt forms of racism, but also to institutionalized racism."

Speaking at the 1987 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which was attended by activists, professionals, and politicians, Chavis impressed upon conference participants the need to "rescue the environment from the clutches of persons and institutions gone mad with racism and greed," according to an account in Audubon. The summit cast much needed light on the environmental devastation plaguing minority communities— not only those of African Americans, but of Mexican American farmers, Native Americans, and the indigenous peoples of Alaska. Chavis thus became one of the most prominent spokespersons on environmental policy. After the election of President Bill Clinton in 1992, Chavis served as a senior advisor to the transition team studying the departments of Energy, the Interior, and Agriculture, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some observers noted that when Bill Clinton named of dozens of African Americans to top administration positions, he depleted the ranks of candidates qualified to fill the position of NAACP executive director, a post that Benjamin Hooks was vacating after 16 years in office. Still, the names under consideration were hardly minor league: Chavis; minister-activist Jesse Jackson; Jewell Jackson McCabe, founder and president of the Coalition of 100 Black Women; and Earl F. Shinhoster, a regional NAACP official. The appointment process began to look like a high-pressure political campaign. McCabe urged the predominantly male 64-member board to elect the first woman to the post, while Chavis sent each board member a 14-minute videotape detailing his personal history, his commitment to the NAACP, and his vision of the organization's future. Most of the attention, however, focused on the controversial Jackson, who withdrew from the race two days before the election, apparently over a change in the NAACP's constitution that he felt would decrease the power of the executive director.

Upon his election in 1993, Chavis proclaimed: "Now is the time for healing. Now is the time for unity." However, it was soon discovered that Chavis had begun earmarking the organization's funds as hush money for a legal settlement on a sexual harassment case against him and for other controversial initiatives. In a bizarre twist of events, Chavis was fired by the NAACP's board of directors in 1994.

Further Reading on Benjamin Chavis

Audubon, January-February 1992, p. 30.

Black Enterprise, July 1993, p. 17.

Boston Globe, April 10, 1993, p. 3; April 18, 1993, p. 85.

Detroit Free Press, April 14, 1993.

Ebony, July 1993, pp. 76-80.

Economist, April 17, 1993, p. 27.

Emerge, June 1993, pp. 27-28; September 1993, pp. 38-42.

Jet, April 26, 1993.

Newsweek, August 1, 1983, p. 9; June 14, 1993, pp. 68-69;August 29, 1994, p. 27.

New York Times, April 10, 1993, p. 10; April 11, 1993, p. 20;May 2, 1993.

People, July 19, 1993, pp. 65-66.

Time, July 19, 1993, p. 33.

Wall Street Journal, April 12, 1993, p. B5.

Washington Post, April 10, 1993, p. A1; April 26, 1993.