Benjamin Franklin Chavis Jr. was born into a family of activists. Standing up to the establishment and acts of injustice to remedy a situation was nothing new to him. His grandfather, John Chavis, who was the first black person to graduate from Princeton University, defied the system to educate African Americans when it was illegal to do so in America. Benjamin replicated this precedent in his hometown when he was just 13 years old. He desegregated the community library by being the first African American to obtain a library card and made an attempt to borrow books.
Born on January 22, 1948, in Oxford, North Carolina to Benjamin Chavis Sr. and Elisabeth Chavis, who taught at a school for African American orphans. This made him passionate about education; he studied at Mary Potter High School and graduated in 1965. He later furthered his education at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, and continued to the University of North Carolina, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1969.
He also took interest in national issues at a young age when he reported for the local black newspaper, the Carolinian, and doubled as an editor for his school’s newspaper, according to history makers. To consolidate his interest in activism, his father made him a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when Benjamin was 12 years old, notable biographies reported.
When he completed his education, Benjamin began to boldly show interest in matters of racial equality. In 1968, he took up the task of being a field officer for the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. The establishment of the commission was inspired by the assassination of civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, and the Birmingham and Alabama church bombings that killed four African American school girls in 1963. To ensure justice for such incidents, the commission outlined racial and justice strategies for national and regional organizations.
As a result of his commitment to racial equality, Benjamin, with nine others, who became known as the Wilmington 10, were sentenced to a 282-year prison term. He had gone to Wilmington in 1971 to rally support for a school desegregation legal tussle that was being pursued by NAACP. While there, a white-owned grocery store was firebombed in racial violence. Benjamin was charged with arson, including the nine others, and was sentenced to 34 years. The conviction was later overturned after the accusations were discovered to be false.
Aside from his civil rights activism, Benjamin also took interest in the environmental movement. He was actively involved in demonstrations against the depositing of tons of contaminated soil in rural Warren County, North Carolina, where the population was 75 percent black and mostly poor. He was not happy industrial waste was being thrown at the marginalized black community because they seemed helpless. Though the protests did not achieve their main target of dumpings at the site, it however dissuaded others from creating their own landfill sites in Warren County.
It was during such activism that he coined the term “environmental racism.” He wanted to bring American society’s attention to the large toxic waste the black community was being made to endure. He lambasted the federal government as well as city authorities for failing to do anything about a looming disaster that affected the health of black people.