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Chavis, Benjamin 1948–

Benjamin Chavis 1948

Executive director of the NAACP, clergyman, activist

At a Glance

World Focused on his Imprisonment

Pioneered Concept of Environmental Racism

Took Helm of Troubled NAACP

Selected writings

Sources

The first political action taken by 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 awaywould 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 childs 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 mindsthose of blacks and whites.

As the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the largest and oldest civil rights organization in the United States, Chavis faces strategic and philosophical challenges that make the library fracas look like childs play. In the eyes of many, the NAACP has been resting on the laurels of its political achievements of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960sits glory yearsand urgently needs redirection. An increasing number of African Americans view the organization as inflexible and out of touch with the ever-changing manifestations of injustice in American society. Thus, Chavis, a radical best known in the United States for his wrongful imprisonment over a North Carolina firebombing, shoulders the responsibility of renewing the NAACP, of awakening a giant that has been sleeping for far too long.

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 U.S., particularly in the South. But even though the nations military services were integrated in the year of Benjamin Chaviss birth, and a judicial decision six years later struck down the practice of separate but equal

At a Glance

Surname pronounced Chay-viss; born Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Jr., January (some sources say May) 22, 1948, in Oxford, NC; married second wife, Martha Rivera; children: Michele, Paula, Benjamin III, Franklin, Ana. Education: University of North Carolina, B A. 1969; Duke University, M.Div., 1980; Howard University, Ph.D. in theology, 1981.

Ordained minister, organizational executive, activist. Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ, became field officer, 1968; imprisoned for Wilmington firebombing, 1976-80; conviction overturned by U.S. Department of Justice, 1980; returned to Commission for Racial Justice as deputy director of New York office, 1983-85, executive director working in Cleveland office, 1985-93; clergy coordinator for Jesse Jacksons presidential campaign, 1984; spearheaded environmental report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, 1987; served on Clinton/Gore transition team, 1992; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP), Baltimore, MD, executive director, 1993. Former labor organizer, AFSCME.

Member: Southern Christian Leadership Conference (civil rights organizer, 1967-69), National Alliance against Racism and Political Repression, Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice, Angola Foundation, National Coalition for Peace in Angola.

Selected awards: George Collins Community Service Award, Congressional Black Caucus, 1977; William L. Patterson Award, 1977; Shalom Award, Eden Theological Seminary, 1977; Gertrude E. Rush Distinguished Service Award, National Bar Association; Walker Humanitarian Award, National Business League; Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Award, Progressive National Baptists Convention.

Addresses: Office 4805 Mt. Hope Dr., Baltimore, MD 21215.

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 1968the year of Kings assassination, which some observers feel brought an end to the modern civil rights eraChavis became a field officer for the United Church of Christs 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 spearheaded 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, Mikes 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 NAACPthe organization that Chavis had joined when he was only 12 years old and would one day headwas 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 masters degree from the divinity school under a study-release program. A disciplined studenthe had taken his undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1969Chavis dodged the prisons 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 courts 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, a few years after receiving his doctorate in divinity from Howard University, Chavis returned to the United Church of Christs 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 preachers 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 Americas 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 Jacksons 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 blackthe highest concentration of black citizens in the stateand mostly poor. Although the Warren County battle was lost, the protesters succeeded in shelving the states 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: industrys 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 communitiesnot 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 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 organizations 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 NAACPs constitution that he felt would decrease the power of the executive director.

Took Helm of Troubled NAACP

Upon his election in 1993, Chavis proclaimed: Now is the time for healing. Now is the time for unity. Assuming the leadership of the NAACP at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Chavis has been charged with steering the 84 year-old organization into a new era. As Matthew Scott put it in Black Enterprise, He must begin the arduous task of defining the civil rights issues of the 90s in terms that are important to todays generation of African Americans. Critics contend that in following the strategies that won it groundbreaking victories in the forties, fifties, and sixties, the NAACP lost sight of a changing society. Membership and funding has stagnated, and the groups influence has waned in light of the emergence of other black organizationsorganizations that take a more forceful stand on the economic concerns of poor African Americans in the United States.

Chavis, the youngest person ever to head the NAACP, acknowledges this criticism and is committed to change. He has counted among his goals the extension of the NAACP to embrace other people of color, including Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans; the launching of a corporate fund-raising campaign; and the vigorous recruitment of young people to join a graying organization whose members median age is 55. Hell bring the social movement back to the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference president Joseph Lowery commented in Emerge.

In addition, Chavis supports the formation of an alliance between African Americans and Africans throughout the world, including the Caribbean, Latin America, and the entire continent of Africa. It is a recapturing of [the] vision of [groundbreaking social scientist] W. E. B. Du Bois of all people of African descent and all people of color working together to literally transform the world, he was quoted as saying in Emerge.

Chavis has not abandoned his tradition of grass-roots activism. One of his first acts as executive director of the NAACP was to travel to Los Angeles to spend time with inner city youths as a jury deliberated the explosive federal civil rights trial of four police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King. The NAACP is issuing a wake-up call to the African American community, Chavis said in Ebony. Hey, racism is still here.[But the NAACP can] uplift and improve the whole quality of life in the community.

Selected writings

Let My People GoPsalms from Prison, 1977.

Sources

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.

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.

Isaac Rosen

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Benjamin Chavis

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

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. □

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Chavis Muhammad, Benjamin

Benjamin Chavis Muhammad

Born: January 22, 1948
Oxford, North Carolina

African American activist, religious leader, and author

Lifelong activist Benjamin Chavis Muhammad overcame racial injustice and wrongful imprisonment to become a vocal leader in the civil rights movement, which pressed for equality between the races.

Descended from activists

Benjamin Franklin Chavis Jr. (he took the last name Muhammad later in life) was born in 1948 in Oxford, North Carolina, into a long and distinguished line of preachers. His parents were Benjamin Chavis Sr. and Elisabeth Chavis. He grew up the only son in a family of four children. 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 (religious school) that later became the university. John Chavis, according to Benjamin, was killed in 1838 for teaching slave children to read and write.

In the mid-twentieth century, even as the walls of segregation (the act of separating people based on race) began to crumble, the worldviews of civil rights leaders like Chavis Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968) were shaped against this back drop of hatred and bigotry (intolerance of nonwhites). Chavis became involved in his church, finding shelter from such hostile attitudes.

Chavis attended school at the North Carolina Colored Orphanage, where his mother worked as a teacher. His father made him a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when Chavis was twelve.

Benjamin Chavis Muhammad's first act of protest against racial injustice came when he was a wide-eyed thirteen year old. On his way home from school each day, Chavis Muhammad 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 Muhammad knew, should have been the enrichment of mindsthose of blacks and whites.

College education and continuing civil rights work

After graduation from high school, where Chavis Muhammad kept up his early interest in and support for racial equality, he went on to St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, North Carolina. After two years at St. Augustine's, Chavis Muhammad went on to the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry.

In 1968the year of King's assassination, which some observers feel brought an end to the modern civil rights eraChavis Muhammad became a field officer for the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice. The Commission was organized in 1963 in response to the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers (19251963) and the infamous Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing that killed four African American schoolgirls in 1963. The Commission coordinated racial justice strategies for national and regional organizations and led community organization and criminal justice campaigns.

In February of 1971 Chavis Muhammad 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, 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 Muhammad, and one white woman came to be known) were convicted of arson (illegally starting a fire) and were sentenced to a combined total of 282 years in prison. The lengthiest term, thirty-four years, was slapped on Chavis Muhammad.

World focused on his imprisonment

The case immediately attracted worldwide attention and became a celebrated focus of the civil rights movement in the United States. Defense attorneys pointed out 2,685 errors in the trial, but appeals were denied. The Wilmington 10 went to prison in 1976.

While in prison, Chavis Muhammad, 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 (religious school) under a study-release program. A hard-working student, Chavis Muhammad 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 key 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 Muhammad and the other activists had been released, a Justice Department investigation led to a federal appellate court's reversal of the convictions.

By 1985 Chavis Muhammad had been elected executive director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice and soon emerged as a national figure. He organized gang summits (meetings between leaders) to criticize the skyrocketing violence, the school drop-out rate, and rampant drug involvement hurting America's young people. He also participated in mainstream national politics and served as the clergy coordinator (religious coordinator) for the Reverend Jesse Jackson's (1941) 1984 presidential campaign.

Pioneered concept of "Environmental Racism"

While Chavis Muhammad was at the Commission for Racial Justice, he became associated with the growing environmental movement. In 1983 Chavis Muhammad 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 and mostly poor. Chavis Muhammad, educated in school as a chemist and in the streets as an activist, saw the political issue clearly: industry's garbage was being passed off on the lower class, politically helpless members of society. Although the protest failed at getting the landfill removed, it did stop further landfills being added to Warren County.

Coining the term "environmental racism," Chavis Muhammad 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. He criticized federal, state, and local governments, as well as the mainstream environmental organizations, which were headed by whites and, in his view, cared more about the wetlands than the health of black people.

Chavis Muhammad's speech at the 1987 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit cast much needed light on the environmental devastation destroying minority communitiesnot only those of African Americans, but of Mexican American farmers, Native Americans, and the peoples of Alaska. Thus he became one of the most visible spokespersons on environmental policy. After the election of President Bill Clinton (1946) in 1992, Chavis Muhammad 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.

Controversy

When Chavis Muhammad won the election in 1993 as the executive director of the NAACP, he proclaimed: "Now is the time for healing. Now is the time for unity." It was soon discovered, however, that Chavis Muhammad had begun setting aside the organization's funds to use for a legal settlement on a sexual harassment case (the verbal or physical mistreatment of a sexual nature). In a twist of events, the NAACP's board of directors fired Chavis Muhammad in 1994. In 1996 a District of Columbia Superior Court ruled that the organization would not have to pay any part of a $332,400 settlement reached in the case.

In a change of religious beliefs, Chavis converted to the Nation of Islam, a religious and cultural organization for African Americans, in February 1997 and took the name Muhammad. Chavis Muhammad's desire to join the Nation of Islam and still remain a minister of the United Church of Christ (UCC) was not allowed. The Eastern North Carolina Association of the UCC voted to terminate Chavis Muhammad's ministerial standing in April 1997. He said that God called him to the Nation of Islam, and that he hoped to unite Christians and Muslims in building a new nation.

Chavis Muhammad continues to work for the rights of African Americans. He was one of the organizers of the Million Family March that took place in Washington, D.C., in 2000.

For More Information

Black Enterprise (July 1993): 7.

Chavis, Benjamin F., Jr. Psalms from Prison. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1983.

Detroit Free Press (April 14, 1993).

Ebony (July 1993): 7680.

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"Chavis Muhammad, Benjamin." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chavis-muhammad-benjamin