By Janice Hayes
On Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016, Dr. Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Jr. will deliver the keynote address at the “White Hat Awards Gala” hosted by the Westside Gazette newspaper and the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Broward.
Dr. Chavis is well-known worldwide for his life-long work as a prominent civil rights activist and champion for racial and economic equality, social and environmental justice. While in college, he served as a youth coordinator in North Carolina for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Being under the tutelage of Dr. King fortified his resolve to continue the civil rights struggle that his father had instilled in him as a young child.
At an early age, Chavis exhibited strong leadership qualities and a steadfast commitment to racial and economic justice.
As a young boy he challenged the segregated library in his hometown of Oxford, North Carolina. As a result, he was the first Black to be issued a library card and thusly the library was desegregated. As a 22-year-old teacher, he organized a boycott and a march from Oxford to North Carolina’s State Capitol Building in Raleigh to protest against segregated schools. After 18 months of boycotting white businesses, the town relented and agreed to integrate public schools and other public facilities. In his early twenties, he was appointed Field Officer in the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice and Southern Regional Program Director.
While serving as the Field Officer for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, Chavis was dispatched to go to Wilmington, North Carolina to help desegregate the public school system. Racial tensions were at its peak because the city had closed the Black high school, laid off the Black teachers and principal, and sent the Black students to other schools outside of the community. Chavis met with the students to try to calm the tension and unrest. He would have regular meetings at Gregory Congregational Church with the students to encourage them to embrace non-violence strategies such as boycotts. On Feb. 6, 1971, riots erupted and a white-owned grocery store was firebombed, shots were fired and two people died. Chavis and nine others were arrested on charges of arson related to the grocery. Although the police had no evidence, Chavis and nine others were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. They became known as the Wilmington Ten.
The unjust incarceration of the Wilmington Ten sparked national and international condemnation and protest. The Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial and in 1980 their conviction was overturned. In 2012, North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue granted them Pardons of Innocence. While incarcerated, Dr. Chavis wrote two books and earned a master’s degree in divinity from Duke University under a study-release program.
After serving eight years in prison, upon his release Chavis hit the ground running, His passion and devotion to civil rights is still strong and relevant. He continues the good fight for equal opportunity, social and economic justice. He continues to shed the light and expose injustices such as environmental racism wherein minority communities are targeted sites for hazardous waste facilities. He has remained active within several organizations to improve upon the many disparities plaguing minority communities. He has served as the Vice President of the National Council of Churches, Executive Director and CEO of the NAACP, CEO and founder of the National African American Leadership Summit, Chairman of the Prophetic Justice Unit of the NCC, Co-Chair of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic/Social Jus-tice, President of the Angolan Foundation, Co-Founder of the National Black Independent Political Party, President of the Board of the Washington Office on Africa, Member of the Clinton/Gore Transition Team for the National Resources Center, Co-Founder of the UNC-Charlotte Black Student Union and many other organizations.
In 1995, National African American Leadership Summit appointed Dr. Chavis to serve as the National Director of the Million Man March Organizing Committee that conceived, de-signed, arranged and promoted the Million Man March. After working collaboratively with Russell Simmons during the Million Man March, they created the first national Hip Hop Summit and Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. In 2014, the National Newspaper Publishers Association elected Dr. Chavis to the office of President.
“The Black Press in America is 189 years old and the Westside Gazette newspaper un-der the outstanding leadership of Bobby R. Henry, Sr. represents the best of the prophetic traditions of the Black Press being the clarion steadfast voice advocating for the improvement of the quality of life of Black America. Thus the White Hat Gala rises to the occasion with elegance, grace and faith as awards are given to those who have made a positive difference in Broward County and across the state and nation,” Dr. Chavis commented.
There is an air of exuberance permeating the community in anticipation of the keynote address by Dr. Chavis at the “White Hat Awards Gala” on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. His reputation as a prolific speaker and activist is a much anticipated and highlighted community event culminating on the same weekend as the renaming of the John U. Lloyd State Park which was formerly a segregated beach for Blacks only. After over 65 years, the beach will be renamed in honor of Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Johnson, local Black pioneers, who like Dr. Chavis were also civil rights advocates. During these tumultuous times, when racism and hatred seem to have escalated unashamedly across America, a tried and true voice of hope, love and power is in high demand.
Dr. Chavis stated with serious, but hopeful resolve, “We are living in trying times. We are witnessing the resurgence of social and racial segregation. We live with the reality of economic inequality. But this is the day that the Lord hath made. We all are called to celebrate. We all are called to stand up and speak out for that which is right in the sight and presence of God. We all are called to unify and to work together to transform our community and world. We are all called to sup-port and fight to overcome Sickle Cell and all the health diseases. We are very grateful for what the White Hat Gala symbolizes for the uplift of all humanity.”