In 1961, Benjamin Chavis Jr., tired of reading tattered books, boldly marched into the whites-only library in Oxford, North Carolina. The young teen, already a NAACP member, was promptly asked to leave; instead, he stood his ground.
“He asked why,” a friend recalled to The New York Times. “A lot of us when we were told to go away would just do so, but Ben would always challenge, always ask why.”
Chavis’ persistence resulted in blacks being able to borrow books from the Oxford library. It also led to a lifelong career fighting for justice and equality. Just two years after the library incident, he became a statewide youth coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Now a civil rights icon himself and the NAACP’s former executive director, Chavis will deliver the University of Mary Washington’s MLK Jr. Celebration keynote address on Wednesday, Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. in the University Center’s Chandler Ballroom. The event is sponsored by the Office of the President.
Hosted by the James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC), this weeklong celebration recognizes the life – and assassination – of Dr. King. Events include an MLK Jr. Kids Day, a documentary on his life and legacy, a Day of Service for the UMW community, and a visual and performing arts event honoring King and other champions of social justice.
“We are extremely honored to have Dr. Chavis, a lifelong civil rights activist and trailblazer, visit our campus,” said JFMC Director Marion Sanford. “He embodies the very essence of bravery, tenacity and sacrifice, and demonstrates an unwavering commitment to advancing the ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina, Chavis worked to desegregate public schools. In 1972, he and his fellow activists – dubbed the Wilmington 10 – were unjustly convicted of arson, with Chavis receiving a 34-year sentence. Amnesty International declared them political prisoners, and after eight years, Chavis’ conviction was overturned. In 2012, he was pardoned.
While incarcerated, Chavis earned a Master of Divinity degree and later became a Doctor of Ministry and ordained in the United Church of Christ. Named the NAACP’s youngest executive director in 1993, Chavis also served as the national director of the Million Man March. He is currently president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association for the Black Press of America.
MLK Jr. Kids Day, Sunday, Jan. 19, from 3 to 5 p.m. at James Monroe High School, is part of the 14th annual communitywide celebration sponsored by the Fredericksburg-area Partnership for Academic Excellence. UMW students will lead area children in games, activities and crafts.
I Am MLK Jr., a 2018 documentary examining the impact of King’s lifelong commitment to civil rights, will be shown on Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 6 p.m. in the UC’s Colonnade Room, with a discussion to follow.
“Speaking Truth to Power,” featuring art, music, dance and spoken word, will be held on Thursday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. in the Lee Hall Underground.
UMW’s MLK Jr. Celebration culminates in the Day of Service on Saturday, Jan. 25, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., based in the UC’s Chandler Ballroom. Students and others in the campus community will engage in service projects beneficial to various Fredericksburg area agencies. A continental breakfast and lunch are included, and the afternoon concludes with a discussion on service, civic engagement and inclusivity. Registration can be found online at MyUMW.
All events are free and open to the public. For information, contact the JFMC at 540-654-1044 or firstname.lastname@example.org.