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Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.

Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Jr, was born on January 22, 1948, in Oxford, North Carolina. Chavis's parents were educators who taught at a school for African American orphans. Chavis’s activism was in his bloodline; his grandfather, John Chavis, the first black graduate from Princeton University, set up an underground school for African Americans who were forbidden to learn to read and write. Chavis became active in civil rights at the young age of thirteen when he attempted to integrate the all white library in his hometown; although he was ultimately unable to check out any books, he was the first African American to obtain a library card and to attempt to borrow books. Chavis graduated from Mary Potter High School in 1965 where he was a member of the football team and editor of the school newspaper. While a high school student Chavis also wrote for the local black paper, The Carolinian.

While a freshman at Saint Augustine College, Chavis served as a youth coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and on the advance team for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chavis received his B.S. degree in chemistry in 1969 from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. That same year, Chavis was appointed Southern regional program director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ). In 1971, the UCC sent Chavis to Wilmington, North Carolina, to help desegregate the public school system. A year later Chavis and the now famed Wilmington Ten were arrested and falsely convicted of conspiracy and arson; after serving nearly a decade in prison and receiving international attention the charges were eventually overturned in 1980. While in prison Chavis wrote two books: An American Political Prisoner and Psalms from Prison.

In 1980, Chavis received his Master’s of Divinity degree from Duke University and went on to earn his Doctorate of Ministry from Howard University. In 1985, Chavis was named executive director of UCC and CEO of the UCC-CRJ; in 1993 he became the youngest person to serve as executive director and CEO of the NAACP. After leaving the NAACP in 1994, Chavis served as executive director of the National African American Leadership Summit. In 1995, Chavis was appointed National Director of the Million Man March, one of the most successful gatherings of the 20th century. Chavis was later named East Coast Regional Minister of the Nation of Islam and organized the Million Family March in 2000. In 2001, along with Russell Simmons, Chavis co-founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a coalition of hip-hop artists and community leaders dedicated to fighting the war on poverty and injustice.

Accession Number

A2004.267

Sex

Male

Interview Date

12/20/2004 |and| 2/2/2005

Last Name

Chavis

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

F.

Schools

Mary Potter High School

Mary Potter Middle School

St. Augustine's University

Duke University

First Name

Benjamin

Birth City, State, Country

Oxford

HM ID

CHA07

Favorite Season

Summer

State

North Carolina

Favorite Vacation Destination

Dominican Republic

Favorite Quote

Freedom Is A Constant Struggle.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

1/22/1948

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Greens

Short Description

Nonprofit chief executive Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. (1948 - ) had the distinction in 1993 of becoming the youngest person at the time to have served as executive director and CEO of the NAACP. In 1995, Chavis was appointed National Director of the Million Man March, and later was named East Coast Regional Minister of the Nation of Islam. In 2001, along with Russell Simmons, Chavis co-founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

Employment

United Church of Christ

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

National African American Leadership Summit

National Newspaper Publishers Association

Favorite Color

Green

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.'s interview, session 1

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his mother's occupation and her personality

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his mother's education and her training to become a teacher

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his family's efforts to find the gravesite of his ancestor John Chavis

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. traces the history of landownership on both sides of his family

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about how his family observed holidays during his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his childhood activities in Oxford, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the community of Oxford, North Carolina where he grew up

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes the communities of Oxford, North Carolina from his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his experiences at Angier B. Duke Elementary School in Oxford, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his favorite subjects and activities during his elementary school years in Oxford, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the people that influenced him as a teenager

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about trying to integrate his town's library at the age of twelve, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about trying to integrate his town's library at the age of twelve, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about trying to integrate his town's library at the age of twelve, pt. 3

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the aftermath of his attempted integration of the Richard H. Thornton Library in Oxford, North Carolina

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his freshman year of high school at Freedman High School in Lenoir, North Carolina

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his experiences at Mary Potter High School in Oxford, North Carolina

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the growth of his activist beliefs during high school

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his experiences at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, North Carolina

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about how his membership in SCLC and the NAACP shaped him as a young activist

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. recalls his parents' reactions to his activism during his time at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, North Carolina

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his reaction to the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his civil rights activism after Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. reflects on his beliefs about martyrdom in the context of the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. reflects on various activist groups' tactics for social change

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about how he trained to become a minister in the United Church of Christ

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes a conflict with the Ku Klux Klan in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1971

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his arrest as part of the Wilmington Ten in 1972, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the history of racial strife in Wilmington, North Carolina

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his arrest as part of the Wilmington Ten in 1972, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about spending six months in jail while waiting to stand trial in Wilmington, North Carolina

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. recalls the explosion of his car while he waited to stand trial in Wilmington, North Carolina

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. remembers his sentencing as a member of the Wilmington Ten

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about adjusting to life in prison after being jailed in 1972

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his correspondence as a political prisoner in North Carolina

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his efforts to appeal his prison sentence during the 1970s

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. remembers using nonviolent protest to improve conditions at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Slating of Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.'s interview, session 2

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the Wilmington Ten beginning their prison sentences in 1972

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1972

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the murder of a prisoner, John Cutino, during December 1972

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes protesting for improved conditions at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the outcome of protests after the murder of John Cutino at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the appeals process throughout the 1970s to free the Wilmington Ten from prison

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes studying at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina during his imprisonment

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the successful campaign to free the Wilmington Ten

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his efforts with the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice to fight environmental racism

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about deciding to run for executive director of the NAACP in 1993

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. recalls his election as the youngest executive director of the NAACP in 1993

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his activism as executive director of the NAACP

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. responds to charges of mismanagement and sexual harassment during his tenure as executive director of the NAACP

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his relationship with HistoryMaker The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about the controversy over the 30th Anniversary March on Washington in 1993

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his efforts to end gang violence

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his impressions of the Nation of Islam

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his role in arranging the Million Man March in 1995

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. reflects on the legacy of the Million Man March in 1995

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his decision to join the Nation of Islam

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes his leadership roles within the Nation of Islam

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his work as a co-founder of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes the goals of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. gives his perspective on the controversies associated with hip hop culture

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. reflects upon his life

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. reflects upon what he learned in prison as one of the Wilmington Ten

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. narrates his photographs

DASession

1$2

DATape

5$7

DAStory

2$4

DATitle
Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. talks about his arrest as part of the Wilmington Ten in 1972, pt. 2
Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. recalls his election as the youngest executive director of the NAACP in 1993
Transcript
But to answer your question, it was at nighttime. It was in March of 1971. I was in my church [First African Congregation of the Black Messiah, Wilmington, North Carolina]. The police surrounded the church. I didn't want them to raid the church. I went outside and said, "What's the problem?" They said, "[HistoryMaker] Reverend [Benjamin F.] Chavis [Jr.]," at the time, "you're under arrest for the disturbance that had happened a year earlier." So I didn't resist arrest. Later that night they began to bring in the others. And we served notice that we were innocent at our arraignment. And it took us almost ten years to prove our innocence.$$Were, so were you jailed that night?$$I was jailed that night. I stayed in jail for four months. And the first night that they put us in jail, they tear gassed us while we were in jail in the New Hanover County [North Carolina] jail. The sheriff's deputy said, "Oh, we got you now." And I remember I had a cross, a little African cross called a thalesimo [ph.]. And he jerked the cross around my neck and said, "Nigger, we got you now. Even God ain't gonna help you in here," and they tear gassed us. But you keep in mind now, I'm a twenty-one-year-old grown man by then. I had smelled tear gas before. I had been locked up before. I had been shot at before. Nothing they could have done was gonna make me bow down to them. And that's all what it's about. You have to understand part of the injustice of black people is they break your spirit, and once they break your spirit, they got you. And I'm very thankful to my co-defendants, who were only fifteen, sixteen and seventeen years old. I was the adult. They were only kids.$$Of the others (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) The others were just fifteen and sixteen years old. They were high school student leaders, and those young men stood strong. That was their first time being tear gassed. That was their first time being locked up. I was a veteran. And they stood, we stood together in rigid solidarity. Because they went to their parents and said, "All right, if you will turn state evidence against Reverend Chavis and the rest, we'll let you go." None of them would do that. They refused to lie to try to save themselves. It's a remarkable story. Most political prisoner cases don't wind up like ours, you know. We're one of the first major political prisoner cases in America where we overturned our convictions and cleared our records, where the government admitted that they had framed us all, where the government admitted that they had paid witnesses to lie on us. But it took a lot of struggle to get to that point.$$And the United Church--$$Of Christ.$$--of Christ [United Church of Christ] posted your bail?$$Right, six months later they posted a five hundred thousand dollar bail (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Because--$The election was in April of 1993. The full board--there was a search committee, search process. There were hundreds of people running. It got narrowed down to ten; then it got narrowed down to four. I was one of the final four, [HistoryMaker Reverend] Jesse [L.] Jackson, myself, [HistoryMaker] Jewell Jackson McCabe, New York, over at the [National] Coalition of 100 Black Women, and Earl Shinhoster, who was the southern regional director of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] at that time, so we were the four finalists. Now something happened that was significant in this. In January of 1993, Reginald [F.] Lewis dies unexpectedly, tragically.$$Right.$$He had just turned fifty years old. And that was a real tragic blow, to me personally as well as I think to our people. His brother--and his brothers helped me continue with my campaign for the NAACP, as well as his wife, Loida [Nicolas-]Lewis, and his brothers, Tony [Anthony Fugett] and Jean [Fugett], but particularly Tony Fugett. Right before Reggie had died, he asked his brother, Tony, his younger brother, Tony, to work with me toward the NAACP, which he did, faithfully. So we're in Atlanta [Georgia] for the board meeting. The week of the board meeting, April of 1993, Jesse pulls out of the race, and so it left three. And on the first ballot, with three names on the ballot, I won a plurality of the votes on the first ballot.$$Was there any concern that you may have been a little too radical for the organization, or do you think that that assisted in your winning (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Right.$$--because they needed--$$Well--$$--to change?$$--that's a good question. During the search process that issue came up. And Percy Sutton was on the search committee, and he thought my background would have been an asset for the NAACP to particularly reach young people. 'Cause the NAACP by that, by 1993 had a hurdle to get over because a lot of young people were not as aware of the NAACP's great history in the past, and there were questions about the NAACP's relevancy to what was going on.$$Right.$$And of course, I was very--I sent each of the sixty-four board members a videotape, and it was a composite videotape of my work at the Commission for Racial Justice. It shows very activist. I said that if I'm elected, I would bring young people into the organization, but not to sit, to be activated, to build a movement of young people so we'll have a new generation of freedom fighters, new generation of civil rights advocates and civil rights activists. I wanted to make civil rights appealing to young people, make civil rights cool to young people. That was my goal. And I felt a majority of the board members, by their vote, agreed with that. Now obviously, it was not a unanimous vote. There were some on the board, to be very honest, at the beginning of my tenure, who were opposed to my activist tradition. And I was aware of it, but I thought I could win those board members over by making progress for the organization. And as soon as I was elected that April--it was Good Friday--I didn't even go to the headquarters back in Baltimore [Maryland], I went straight to Los Angeles [California].