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Muhammad, Benjamin Franklin Chavis

Benjamin Franklin Chavis Muhammad, 1948–, African-American civil-rights and religious leader, b. Oxford, N.C., as Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Jr. An activist from boyhood, he was a youth coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the late 1970s, Chavis was one of ten men wrongly imprisoned (1976–80) after leading a Wilmington, N.C., demonstration. A minister in the United Church of Christ from 1980, he headed (1985–93) that church's Commission for Racial Justice before his 1993 appointment as director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Controversy surrounding his leadership of the NAACP and his handling of sexual harassment and discrimination charges against him led to his dismissal the following year. In 1994–95 he was national director for the Million Man March in Washington (Oct., 1995). In 1997 he announced himself a member of the Nation of Islam (see Black Muslims) and began to preach as a Muslim minister; he changed his surname from Chavis to Muhammad. In 2001 he became president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network,

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Chavis, Benjamin Franklin, Jr.

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Chavis, Benjamin Franklin, Jr.

Chavis, Benjamin Franklin, Jr.

January 22, 1948


Born and raised in Oxford, North Carolina, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., a civil rights activist, came from a long line of preachers. His great-great-grandfather, the Rev. John Chavis, was the first African American to be ordained a Presbyterian minister in the United States. Chavis first became involved in the struggle for civil rights at the age of twelve, when his persistence in seeking privileges at a whites-only library in Oxford started a chain of events that led to its integration. In 1967, while a student at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte, Chavis became a civil rights organizer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); he remained active with the organization until he graduated from UNC in 1969 with a B.A. in chemistry. After a year spent as a labor organizer with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), he joined the Washington field office of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice (UCCCRJ).

On February 1, 1971, Chavis was sent to Wilmington, North Carolina, in response to a request from Wilmington ministers for a community and civil rights organizer. The racial climate in Wilmington had become explosive when court-ordered desegregation began in 1969. In January 1971 black students began a boycott of Wilmington High School; Chavis was sent to help organize this student group. Within two weeks of his arrival, Wilmington erupted in a weeklong riot.

In March 1972, fourteen months after the riot ended, Chavis and fifteen former students were arrested for setting fire to a white-owned grocery store and shooting at firemen and policemen who answered the call. Chavis, eight other black men, and a white woman were convicted for arson and conspiracy to assault emergency personnel. Chavis and the nine other defendants became known as the Wilmington Ten. In 1975, after his appeals were exhausted, Chavis entered prison. Because of the weak nature of the evidence against them, Amnesty International designated them political prisoners in 1978, the first time the organization had done so for any U.S. convicts. Their case received national and international support.

In 1977 all three witnesses who testified against the Wilmington Ten admitted they had given false testimony and had been either pressured or bribed by the Wilmington police. Despite this new evidence, the defendants were denied the right to a new trial. Chavis, the last of them to be paroled, was released in 1980, having served more than four years of his thirty-four-year sentence at Caledonia State Prison. On December 4, 1980, a federal appeals court overturned the convictions, citing the coercion of prosecution witnesses.

While in prison, Chavis taught himself Greek, translated the New Testament, wrote two books (An American Political Prisoner Appeals for Human Rights in 1979 and Psalms from Prison in 1983) and earned a master of divinity degree magna cum laude from Duke University. After his release he earned a doctor of ministry degree from the Divinity School of Howard University. In 1986 Chavis became the executive director of the UCCCRJ. In this capacity, he focused on combating both what he calls "environmental racism"the government and industry's practice of burdening poor and predominantly black neighborhoods with toxic waste dumpsand gang violence. In 1993 he became the seventh executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; his election at age forty-five made him the youngest person ever to lead the organization. He pledged to revitalize the organization, whose aging membership had been a source of concern, and to sharpen its focus; he also cited the longer-term goal of expanding membership to include other minorities.

Chavis's policies during his tenure as executive director proved extremely controversial. In an attempt to reorient the NAACP toward young urban blacks, he held dialogues with militant black leaders, including Louis Farrakhan. In the summer of 1994 he acknowledged that he had used NAACP funds in an out-of-court settlement with a female NAACP staff member who accused Chavis of sexual harassment. Amid these and other charges of financial impropriety, the board of directors relieved Chavis of his position as executive director on August 20, 1994.

Following his resignation from the NAACP, Chavis joined the Nation of Islam as an organizer and close adviser of Louis Farrakhan. In 1995 Chavis was the principal organizer of the Million Man March. In February 1997 he announced his conversion to Islam, and he took the name Benjamin Chavis Muhammad. He was subsequently defrocked by the United Church of Christ. He was named by Farrakhan to lead Malcolm X's old mosque in Harlem.

In 2001, Chavis became president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN), an organization working for the rights of African Americans.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

Bibliography

Chavis, Benjamin, Jr. "Foreword." In Confronting Environmental Racism, edited by Robert Bullard. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

Kotlowitz, Alex. "A Bridge Too Far? Ben Chavis." New York Times Magazine (June 12, 1994): 4043.

mansur m. nuruddin (1996)

alexis walker (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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