The 1995 Million Man March was arguably the most important event in Black History of the 1990s. News accounts at the time clearly listed both Louis Farrakhan and Ben Chavis as jointly responsible for organizing the Million Man March. However, nearly all news coverage and subsequent discussions of the Million Man March focused on Louis Farrakhan and his ideology, not on Ben Chavis. Ben Chavis had his own credentials as a seasoned Black radical organizer with religious nationalist tendencies who had served time in prison for his protest activities. The erasure of Ben Chavis from the history of the Million Man March may be due to his personal weaknesses, but the sociological importance of organizing should not be overlooked. The overall agenda and organizing of the March had the stamp of Chavis’s ideology and skills as well as Chavis’s stance as ordained Christian clergy with a Black Liberation theology. Benjamin Franklin Chavis was ordained in the United Church of Christ, a predominantly White denomination, and earned a master’s in divinity at Duke and a doctorate in ministry at Howard. He also did additional graduate work at Union Theological Seminary. He was especially influenced by the Black Christian Nationalist theology of Albert Cleage Jr. , a UCC minister (Taylor 2001). In a 1980 interview, Chavis discussed the importance of Black liberation theology and the need for Black people to be organized and to learn from the process of struggle (Scarupa 1980). Taylor (2015) stresses the continuities between longstanding traditions of Christian Black religious nationalism dating from the separatism of Martin Delaney and the militant rhetoric of David Walker and the ideology of the Nation of Islam
The son of educator parents who were civil rights activists (Taylor 2001), Ben Chavis’ activist career began as a teen in North Carolina where he was statewide youth coordinator for the SCLC in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, he earned a degree in chemistry at UNC-Charlotte where he joined the Black Panthers and organized student protests (Taylor 2001). In 1969 he took a job teaching high school in his hometown of Oxford, NC, where he helped lead desegregation protests. In 1970, Chavis was appointed Southern Regional Program Director of the 1.7-million-member United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ). In 1971, the UCC CRJ sent him to Wilmington NC to work with students who were boycotting the schools over the handling of school integration. Conflicts between the students, the authorities, and violent White supremacists escalated; one Black protester was killed by police, a White person driving his car into a protest area was killed, and a fire destroyed a grocery store near the protest site. In 1972, a year later, Chavis and nine others, the “Wilmington Ten,” were charged with various crimes. Key witnesses later recanted their testimony, saying they had been bribed or intimidated. The UCC provided bail to Chavis and the others so they were released during the trial and appeals, 1972-76. Chavis and the others were ultimately convicted, lost appeals, and were sentenced to prison. The Wilmington Ten were considered political prisoners by Amnesty International. Chavis was imprisoned for four and a half years and organized peaceful protests in prison before being released on parole in 1980. He was ultimately pardoned as innocent in 2012 and received compensation for false imprisonment.
At the 1972 Black Political Convention, Chavis authored a resolution calling for an all-black political party (Taylor 2001). In 1982, Chavis coined the phrase “environmental racism” during protests in Warren County, NC. and in 1986 published Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, documenting the correlation between race and the location of toxic waste. He had a background in music and connections with hip hop artists dating from the 1980s and sought to mobilize young voters through hip hop. He worked with gangs to try to promote cease-fires and reduce violence. From 1985 to 1993, Dr. Chavis wrote and produced the national syndicated newspaper column and radio program, “Civil Rights Journal.” In 1988, he was elected Vice President of the National Council of Churches and served as chair of its Prophetic Justice unit. Chavis was clergy coordinator for the Jackson campaign in the 1980s and helped build the Jackson coalition (Taylor 2001).
Chavis was selected as executive director of the NAACP in 1993. His intention was to radically change the course of the organization, to make it less elitist and more militant and focused challenging oppression (Rahman 1996). His radicalism led to major conflicts in the NAACP about his leadership (Brown and Rahoi-Gilchrest 1999, Padgett 1994). Traditional NAACP supporters and donors were especially upset by his inclusion of Louis Farrakhan in a Black leadership summit in April 1994 but also about his outreach to gangs and his support of Palestinians against the government of Israel. He was fired in August 1994 for financial mismanagement and using organizational funds to settle a sexual harassment claim. After being fired by the NAACP, Chavis continued to work with Farrakhan and they jointly founded the National African American Leadership Summit, which Chavis directed 1995-1997. Chavis also led the Million Man March Organizing Committee.
Louis Farrakhan announced the call for the Million Man March in December 1994, after several months of touring and speaking at men’s only rallies which seemed to be building enthusiasm. Ben Chavis became the National Director and organizer of the Million Man March. In a memoir chapter mostly devoted to detailing financial mismanagement and corruption by Louis Farrakhan and his family, White (2001, chapter 9) says that Chavis approached Farrakhan and asked to be put in charge of organizing the March, both because he believed the NOI lacked the organizational capacity to pull off a big event, and because he needed a visible job and money.
There is substantial evidence that the Million Man March was built on a broad coalition of the sort that Chavis had the ties and experience to build, although it is possible his contribution was limited to pulling together a group who could do the work. I have not located any “insider” discussions of how Chavis operated within the March organizing committee, but the outcome of whatever organizing happened was a broad coalition that included many Black Christian leaders as well as a diverse array of Black organizations. Nelson (1997) describes the work of the National Million Man March Organizing Committee as having representatives from many organizations including “newspapers, radio stations, fraternities and sororities, professional associations, colleges and universities, factories, banks, hospitals.” Nelson says the Committee began with disunity and ineffectiveness but grew more effective over time and that it formed over 400 local committees which were the basis of the successful organizing.
After the Million Man March, Chavis joined Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and took the surname Chavis Muhammad. (He later dropped Muhammad from his name). Although Chavis Muhammad said he believed that Islam and Christianity were compatible, the UCC did not agree and revoked his ordination. In 1997, Farrakhan appointed Chavis Muhammad to lead Mosque No. 7 in Harlem. Chavis Muhammad was identified as an endorser of the Million Woman March in 1997, which also sought and ultimately received Farrakhan’s endorsement, although its organizers had eschewed endorsements from traditional Civil Rights or other Black organizations like churches, sororities, or professional associations. It was generally reported that the Nation of Islam helped with organization of the Million Woman March and was present providing security. Most likely it was Chavis Muhammad who was providing the organizing help.
In 2000, Chavis Muhammad was removed from the Harlem Mosque post after allegations that he had sexually harassed and assaulted a married Muslim woman (Noel 2000). He continued as head of the Million Family March that year and spoke at the rally. In 2001, Chavis Muhammad and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons formed the Hip Hop Summit Action Network and organized hip hop summits that sought to combine opposition to censorship of hip hop with social programs including literacy programs, voter registration drives, and support of public education. Russell Simmons was close to Farrakhan although not a member of the NOI. Chavis Muhammad was the mobilization director of the 2005 Millions More Movement and spoke at that rally on the tenth anniversary of the Million Man March, although has name was mentioned only in a small minority of the news stories about the event. December 2007, Dr. Benjamin Chavis was one of the people invited to ask questions at a “Black and Brown Presidential Forum” in Iowa; he asked candidate Obama how he would embrace the hip-hop generation.
Chavis’s work with the Hip Hop Summit Action Network and collaboration with Simmons persisted through the present. In 2009, Dr. Chavis joined with Ezell Brown to establish the Education Online Services Corporation. In 2013, he began writing columns for the National Newspaper Association. As of this writing, Ben Chavis is currently CEO and President of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (the Black press association) and the President of Education Online Services Corporation which provides online higher education for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He is also President and CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.
Brown, Tim J. and Rita L. Rahoi-Gilchrest. 1999. “Postmodern Personas in Combat: The NAACP and the Reverend Benjamin Chavis.” Howard Journal of Communications 10(1):29-45. doi: 10.1080/106461799246889.
Nelson, William E. Jr. 1997. “Black Church Politics and the Million Man March.” Trotter Review 10(2):4.
Noel, Pete. 2000. “The Shame of Mosque No. 7.” in Village Voice.
Padgett, Tania. 1994. “An Anatomy of Chavis’s Demise.” Network Journal 3(20):5.
Rahman, Ahmad A. 1996. “The Million Man March: A Black Woodstock?”. The Black Scholar 26(1):41-44.
Scarupa, Harriet Jackson. 1980. “Ben Chavis: At Peace with Himself an Interview.” New Directions 8(1):4.
Taylor, James Lance. 2001. “The Reverend Benjamin Chavis-Muhammed: From Wilmington.” Pp. 115- in Religious Leaders and Faith-Based Politics: Ten Profiles, edited by J. R. Formicola and H. Morken.
Taylor, James Lance. 2015. Black Nationalism in the United States : From Malcolm X to Barack Obama: Paperback edition. Boulder, Colo. : Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2015.
White, Vibert L., Jr. 2001. Inside the Nation of Islam : A Historical and Personal Testimony by a Black Muslim: Gainesville, FL : University Press of Florida, 2001.
 References to the name Chavis Muhammad can be found occasionally in news articles throughout the 2000s although most references to him after 2001 use only Chavis. Richard Simmons uses the name “Ben Muhammad” to refer to him in an interview published in January 2002. Coverage of the Millions More Movement in 2005 generally referred to him as Chavis, although a few articles (usually those written by people with Muslim names) referred to him as Chavis Muhammad. There is no mention of the name Muhammad or the time with NOI on Chavis’s current website https://drbenjaminfchavisjr.wixsite.com/drbfc