Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is a prominent Black civil rights leader and 1970 graduate of UNC Charlotte. He was born in Oxford, North Carolina, in 1948 to a family with a history deeply rooted in activism and education. His mother, Elizabeth Chavis, served as a teacher for over 30 years, and his father, Benjamin Chavis Sr., was also an educator. His grandfather, John Chavis, was one of the first African Americans to graduate from college in the United States in the 19th century, obtaining a degree from Washington and Lee University and later Princeton University. John Chavis was a well-known religious leader who taught formerly enslaved peoples as well as white students. At the age of 13, Dr. Benjamin Chavis Jr. became the first African American to receive a library card, making the libraries in his area integrated. This was the beginning of what would become a long future in activism for Chavis.
One of few Black students at UNC Charlotte
Dr. Benjamin Chavis Jr. attended Saint Augustine University, where he had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as his assistant. In 1967, he transferred to Charlotte College during its transition into what we know now as the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Chavis expressed in an interview with J. Murrey Atkins Library that there was a "warm spirit" on campus. As one of the few African Americans on campus at that time, and one of very few in the chemistry department, Chavis was motivated to further his work in activism on campus. He served as one of the founders of UNC Charlotte Students for Action and later became a co-founder of the Black Student Union. He received his Bachelor's in Chemistry from UNC Charlotte in 1970 and furthered his activism and education.
In 1971 Chavis was assigned a new role as a field officer for the Commission for Racial Justice to help desegregate the school system. He then relocated to Wilmington, North Carolina, where much racial conflict began to rise between Black and white students. A demonstration eventually rose to violence, leading to a local grocery store being incinerated during a protest. Chavis and nine other citizens were all falsely convicted of conspiracy and arson in relation to the incident. Out of the ten citizens arrested (nine young Black men and one white woman), Chavis received the longest sentence of 34 years. After serving almost a whole decade in prison, all ten individuals were released due to prosecutorial misconduct. It wasn't until Dec. 12, 2012, when Chavis's case would be pardoned, and he would be paid approximately $50,000 per year he was incarcerated. This case was internationally known and widely referred to as the "Wilmington Ten."
Chavis earned his M.S. in Divinity from Duke University and earned a Doctorate in Ministry from Howard University. He served as the executive director of the national chapter of the NAACP for a year and continued to join different organizations to advocate for African American rights. Chavis has been featured in movies like "Belly" and many major moments in hip hop and African American culture. Today, he remains a minister, civil rights leader, TV Host/Executive producer, author, business CEO, and is a father. Chavis will always be known for his leadership and activism and his huge role in making North Carolina the integrated state it is today.