Eyes on the Prize One Interviews
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Interview with Ben Chavis

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Interviewer: Judy Richardson
Production Team: B
Interview Date: April 18, 1989

Camera Rolls: 2115
Sound Rolls: 253-254

Editorial Notes:

Interview with , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 18, 1989, for . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection. These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of


JUDY RICHARDSON: OK. Give me a sense of what you had been doing locally, in the Wilmington, North Carolina community, in terms of grounding you before you come into Gary.
BEN CHAVIS: Well, in early 1972, ah, I was a community organizer for the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ. And basically I went around throughout North Carolina, Wilmington--I spent more time in Wilmington than other cities--challenging racism. Racism in the school system, ah, racism in employment--ah, you know, racism in the South in the early seventies was very similar to the racism in the South in the sixties. The only difference is that, ah, in the wake of King's assassination, it was more repressive to go out and try to do grassroots organizing, to go out and try to do mobilizing around local issues. But that's where the struggle, ah, was in the early seventies--at many local levels, around issues that, ah, were very crucial to the survival, ah, of the Black community, of the African-American community. And school desegregation, racism in the schools, was a primary issue at, at that time. So I went to Wilmington, in fact the church sent me to Wilmington, to respond to the racial crisis in Wilmington resolving around the school desegregation. Ah, as you know--


JUDY RICHARDSON: that's all right. start over.
BEN CHAVIS: As you know, well, one of the things, you know, as I'm answering the question I have to think about this--In the early nineteen seventies, I was a field organizer for the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, and prior to that, you know, I worked with the SCLC, Dr. King's, ah, organization. I was an SCLC coordinator for North Carolina in, ah, '67 and '68. And after King's assassination, I joined the staff of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. So anyway, the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ sent me to Wilmington, North Carolina, because there was, ah, a emerging crisis developing over the racism in the schools, over school desegregation. And what was happening was that the Black community, particularly Black students, elementary school, junior high, and high school students in particular, were being, ah, victimized, were being, uh--violence was committed on Black students solely because they were trying to go to school. I mean that was--


JUDY RICHARDSON: Can you do this a little bit tighter, and just mention the whole thing about united--could you stop a second? 'cause that's the information. I just need a little bit tighter.


JUDY RICHARDSON: So you're an SCLC organizer and you're now in the United Church of Christ. Can you give a sense of that and going into the Wilmington community and what you're organizing around?
BEN CHAVIS: Yes. It was in early 1972 that I was first sent to Wilmington, North Carolina, by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. I was a grassroots field organizer for the Church, having formerly been an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King's organization, up to 1968. Then I joined the Church staff. And the reason why I was sent to Wilmington by the Church was to respond to racial violence that had been perpetrated on Black students attempting to go to school in a desegregated situation. As a result of that violence being perpetrated on the schoolchildren, ah, ah, a little race riot, ah, occurred. And of course, the National Guard was sent in, two people were killed, millions of dollars in property was lost. But one of the things we decided to do, ah, in Wilmington, ah, in 1971, ah, when the incident first happened--I just, I better stop, 'cause I just thought of something.
BEN CHAVIS: The incident happened in '71 Judy, and the arrest was in '72. And so the backdrop to the situation actually, when I was sent to Wilmington, ah, in 1971, to respond to the racial crisis of high school students in Wilmington, ah, I arrived--
JUDY RICHARDSON: How much of the--
SAM POLLARD: Maybe you want to take a deep breath, Reverend Chavis, before we do this one.
BEN CHAVIS: All right.


JUDY RICHARDSON: OK. so give me the sense of what you'd been doing in going into Wilmington.
BEN CHAVIS: Well, I was first sent to Wilmington, North Carolina in 1971 by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. I had been a field organizer for the Church; prior to that, I was an SCLC staff member, Dr. King's organization, working in the late sixties, primarily in North Carolina. The Church sent me to Wilmington in '71 to respond to the racial violence that had been committed on Black students attempting to go to school. And, as a result, ah, I began to organize in that community and a riot occurred in February of '71, ah, in which the National Guard had to come in to quell the riot. And as a result of that situation, the Church decided to let me stay in Wilmington for a whole year to organize around voter registration, around organizing students who had been expelled from school, and making a challenge to the local forces of racism. 'Cause one of the things that happens in the early seventies is that a lot of the repression, ah, that ended up the struggle in the late sixties began to really be felt at many local levels. And people were fighting back at local levels and grassroots organizing. And Wilmington was the place, ah, up to 1971, through 1972, that we were making this grassroots challenge to the local forces that were aided and abetted by the national forces of racism in this country.


JUDY RICHARDSON: Now talk about some specific incidents. how did you see that repression coming against you locally?
BEN CHAVIS: Well, first of all, the repression as evidenced around Nixon--keep in mind that Nixon was President and Spiro Agnew was Vice President during this time period--and we all knew about the COINTELPRO that was to put in check the Movement of the 1960s and make sure that it would not go--flower in the 1970s. And, ah, for example, ah, I was put in jail, ah, one night because my signal light didn't work. Another time I was put in jail because the registration for my car was not in my glove compartment, but in the trunk, in my briefcase, and they wouldn't allow me to get my briefcase out of the trunk. But what it prevented me from doing was having a rally that night, prevented me from organizing. And the whole strategy of the local repression was to prevent, ah, organizers from organizing. Was to prevent mobilizers from mobilizing people to fight against the new forms of racism. Which really weren't really new; they were old forms emerging again in the early 1970s.


JUDY RICHARDSON: And how did you specifically relate to the country? I mean, what is the country doing at this point? you had mentioned King's assassination, Nixon. for people who don't know Nixon law and order, what is that whole thing with King's assassination and law and order? what does that mean?
BEN CHAVIS: Well, for me, the early 1970s was the backdrop, was in the wake of King's assassination. King's assassination in 1968 was devastating to the movement. Ah, particularly in the South. And people were really wondering whether or not it would be worth it to take the risk in the early '70s to struggle again. But because of the impending crisis like school desegregation, overt racism being committed, on, on Black people, we had no other choice. We had to take the risk at the local level to struggle again. And as a result, we felt the brunt of the Nixonian repression. For example, when, when people talk about COINTELPRO, it wasn't just something happening in Washington, D.C. It happened in Wilmington, North Carolina. It happened in Charlotte, North Carolina. It happened in Raleigh, North Carolina. Where police were setting people up, were following people. I mean, I, I was followed so much, I knew all of the different sedans that followed me. Some of them were federal, ah, agents, state agents, and local agents. And one of the things that COINTELPRO allowed, it allowed for cooperation between the federal, state, and local authorities to circumvent, to divert, and to disrupt the Movement. Ah, and that's, and that's, ah, ah, what they became experts at. And so, those of us within the Movement in the early '70s, we became very knowledgeable, ah, and also very conscious of these disruptive tactics. We would not let that succeed. For example, ah, the times I mentioned when I was put in jail for not having, ah, ah, my registration card to present, or because my signal light didn't work, I went right back the next night and organized a rally anyway. Because one of the things you learn is that when you are a victim of that kind of localized repression, you can't let, you can't let the repressor win the victory. You gotta get up and go and try to mobilize the people anyway. And that's the real reason, ah, why the struggle in Wilmington, despite the violence, really grew. Because we intended to not let that kind of intimidation, ah, put fear in us. And it's very important for the organizers and for the mobilizers and the leaders not to have fear, because if people who want to follow you recognize that you are afraid of the man, as it's called, if you are afraid of Hoover, if you are afraid of Nixon, if you're afraid of the local authorities, then they're gonna be less will, have less will to struggle. So it's very important, ah, for local leadership to exemplify some determination and fight the repression.


JUDY RICHARDSON: So now why is it important to have a national Black political convention in the context of this national repression?
BEN CHAVIS: Well, first of all, ah, the whole idea, ah, of African-Americans and Black people coming together in nineteen sev, seventy-two, ah, was a, a, unique idea. It was an idea that was welcomed, ah, particularly by those of us at the local levels who were struggling against, ah, racism and repression. Ah, keep in mind there had not been a real national meeting of, ah, African-Americans since the sixties. And I'm gonna tell you the truth. It was good notion to go, ah, to Gary, Indiana, ah, when, when, when we all knew it wasn't, we're not going to a funeral. You know, for so many things, you know, I had gotten tired of going to funerals. And not that we should not go to funerals, but so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize King's assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement. And so four years later, March of '72, for us to be gathering up our wherewithal to go to Gary, Indiana--hey, that was a good shot in the arm for the Movement. Because it meant that somehow the various forces, all these local struggles, survived that repression. Somehow we survived the grief that we all had from Dr. King's loss. And somehow we were making a statement that we were going to pick up that baton and run with it again in the 1970s. And Gary became a place for us to gather, ah, to talk about how we were gonna wage struggle in the 1970s. To talk about how we were gonna wage struggle against Nixon. We knew '72 was an election year. We knew that, ah, we had to mobilize our people. 'Cause there'd been a lot of disillusionment again when Nixon, ah, first got elected in 1968. And the whole, keep in mind the backdrop also of this was the Vietnam War. This was the height of the Vietnam War. A lot of my friends got killed in the Vietnam War. And, and so, people wanted a venue to express the struggle.


JUDY RICHARDSON: Give a sense of driving up from north carolina with a carload of local organizers and coming into Gary. you mentioned the red, Black and green flags and stuff. If can you talk about that drive?
BEN CHAVIS: Well, our preparation to go to, ah, Gary, Indiana, for the convention was, ah, enormous. First of all, you know, we had a statewide convention ourselves, in North Carolina. Thousands of people attended. And, of course, we sent hundreds of delegates, ah, from across the state of North Carolina to, ah, Gary. Some went by bus, some went by car, some went by plane. We drove up. And all the way up, we were, ah, you know, thinking about well, what we were going to see when we arrived in Gary. I had never been to Gary, Indiana, before, although I had heard about, ah, Mayor Hatcher being the mayor. And I remember when we first, ah, saw the sign saying, ah, "Welcome to Gary," and we got downtown Gary, I mean, we thought we were in a different country. I mean, ah, to see a city in the United States, given the backdrop now of all this Nixon repression going on, all this sense of disillusionment in some quarters of the nation, to drive into Gary, Indiana, and see streamers, red, Black and green, and "Welcome, ah, National Black, ah, Political Convention,"[1] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 205-34 ah, and, then we found our way to the City Hall. And the City Hall was all decorated with red, Black, and green banners. I mean, it was, ah, a fulfillment, ah, of what a lot of our dreams were[2] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 205-34. And we know that the Gary Convention was time limited. But it was important to have that time to come into that city and that place. It made us feel good. It made us see visibly with our eyes that the struggle had not been in vain. That at least in one municipality, ah, there had been some control to the extent to which a national Black convention could be welcomed. But not only just welcomed, but graciously welcomed. And affirmed the cause of the struggle in the welcome. I think that was very important.


JUDY RICHARDSON: And give me a sense of the police. you had mentioned that the police were so different from what you had come from.
BEN CHAVIS: Right, I, I recall when we first got into Gary, we, ah, didn't know our way around, so we stopped and asked a local policeman for some help. And the police officer smiled and said, "Follow me." He not only showed us, he led us to where we needed to go to register, ah, for the convention. I mean, and keep in mind, I had just come from Wilmington, North Carolina, where the police were pointing guns at us, trying to intimidate us, keep us from having meetings, and it was a different situation with at least the law enforcement in Gary, Indiana. They had been transformed also with this convention being in Gary.


JUDY RICHARDSON: And you had mentioned that you were staying in Chicago and the sense, the different sense that you got with Chicago, with Daley, and Gary with Hatcher. can you talk about that?
BEN CHAVIS: Right, uh. During the convention in 1972, we were staying in Chicago because all the ho--one of the things about Gary, all the hotels got filled up quick. There wasn't enough housing for the thousands of people who came from around the United States. So a lot of the delegates to the Gary Convention stayed in Chicago and drove back and forth by car. And, you know, it was a stark difference between Gary, Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois, in 1972. Because those of us that were staying in a hotel in Chicago, we knew that, ah, Daley, Mayor Daley was in charge. And we knew what the role that Daley played in the '68 Convention. Ah, you know, beating up all the heads, and police brutality, and, and there was a stillness about Chicago in 1972
BEN CHAVIS: --but Gary was alive--


JUDY RICHARDSON: can you talk about that again, and just mention 1968 Democratic Convention? um, if you can, you want to pick it up from--
SAM POLLARD: Yeah, pick it up from how it felt when you were, being in Chicago.
JUDY RICHARDSON: How you felt, the difference in Chicago.
BEN CHAVIS: There was a stark difference between being in Chicago in 1972 and in Gary, Indiana. We were staying in Chicago, ah, in a hotel, and driving to Gary every day. But, ah, you know, first of all, being in Chicago, we knew, I at least had a remembrance--


JUDY RICHARDSON: I'm sorry. Back up and just mention again that there wasn't enough room. you know, that there were so many thousands of delegates.
BEN CHAVIS: Oh, you want me to tell the whole scenario--
JUDY RICHARDSON: Yeah that part, yes, please.
BEN CHAVIS: All right, OK. Ah. For many of the delegations that came to Gary, there was not room to stay in some of the local hotels. There were thousands of people from around the country. So a lot of the delegates, including from the North Carolina delegation, stayed in a hotel in Chicago. I remember it was the Howard Johnson's in Chicago. And, ah, one--there was a real stark difference between, ah, the environment of Chicago and the environment of Gary. Number one, most of us remembered while we were in Chicago the days of Daley. Daley was still the mayor then. And we had, at least I, had a remembrance of the role that Daley played in the National Democratic Convention in 1968, when all those people got their heads beat just for, ah, protesting against racism and for protesting against the Vietnam War. So a lot of us were very kind of even nervous about being in a hotel in Chicago, going to a Black convention in Gary, Indiana. Also there was a stillness of the environment. When we got to Gary, it was alive. There was a lot of electricity in the air. I mean, ah, it was truly a time in Gary, Indiana, when African-Americans, ah, were self-determined. When there was no intimidation. In fact, there was affirmation all over the place. And I would say there was a sense of pride, just to be there. To know that we'd made it, ah, out of those local struggles around the country to come into this convention, ah, to express the aspirations of the people we left back home. 'Cause all of us were delegates. And I really felt I was going to represent Wilmington, North Carolina, and their struggle and their, and their, and their pains and aspirations of the people there. And the thing about it, that was welcomed. That was not resented. Because I heard the other sisters and brothers around the country who were also organizing, who were also struggling, around some of the same issues. But we all had that sense of self-determination. And Gary at least allowed a venue, a place, ah, for that to be expressed without the kind of Nixonian repression that had been going on around all around the rest of the country.
JUDY RICHARDSON: Stop please. That's great.
BEN CHAVIS: I talked about self determination.
JUDY RICHARDSON: That's right, it's in that context, exactly.


JUDY RICHARDSON: OK. Talk about what you see as Diggs tries to gavel down ending the, you know, trying to close the nominations for presiding.
BEN CHAVIS: Well, after thousands of people got into the gymnasium there, at the, ah, local high school--it was held at the local high school in Gary, Indiana, it was big, I'd never been in a, a high school gymnasium that big, you know, almost ten thousand people were in there--and it was at the beginning of the convention. And the first order of business was to determine who was going to preside. And here's Congressman Diggs. Well-respected. But Diggs made a mistake. He, ah, ah, he tried to cut off the nominations, ah, on a few from the floor. And of course, people had come there, again, out of a sense of self-determination, a sense of self-affirmation. And people were not looking for some Roberts' Rule of Order to rule the day. Because this was an African-American Con, ah, Convention. This was a Black convention. And therefore we're supposed to have other values that control how we're going to be about politics of that day, of that convention. And so Diggs, ah, called for the vote. And it was clear, ah, from the voice vote, that the people wanted the nominations to stay open. The people wanted to debate this and make some other nominations. And unfortunately, Diggs misread the crowd. Because when he said, "The chair rules that the nominations are closed," hey, pandemonium broke out. Not against him personally, but people were insulted because they, ah, they didn't want the convention to start off on a point which they had just left in all the repression. We wanted an open convention, not a repressed convention. And so, ah, Diggs, you know, got himself in some hot water. And it took Amiri Baraka, Imamu Baraka, to come with his version of African consensus. I remember Baraka's statement. He said, "Now, sisters and brothers, we must use some scientific process to bring this gathering together so that we can achieve our objectives." But it was the way that Baraka said it. He didn't say it arrogantly. He said it caringly.[3] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 205-40 And for all of the delegates in that room, he was showing respect. Because Baraka showed respect to them. Diggs made a mistake by not showing respect to this convention, particularly at the beginning.


JUDY RICHARDSON: Describe your reaction, what you're thinking may be happening when Diggs tries to gavel down.
BEN CHAVIS: Well, I, you know, my first thought that came to my mind, I said, "Ah, huh--Something's going on to prevent us from having--"
JUDY RICHARDSON: I'm sorry. if you can mention, "My first thought when i saw Diggs."
BEN CHAVIS: My first thought when I saw Diggs gaveling down the convention--my first thought when I saw Diggs gaveling down, ah, the motion, when it was clear that the will of the body was to continue the nominations, I said, "Now, I hope this is not COINTELPRO operative here, to keep us from having this convention." Because the delegates were saying, "We're going to have this convention come hell or high water." And I think Diggs, ah, needed to be more aware of what was in the minds of the delegates. What kind of environments we all came out of, the kind of sense of repression that we came out of. And we wanted to at least be in Gary, Indiana, where we could have an open convention. And a convention needs to begin on an open point, not on a closed point.


JUDY RICHARDSON: And can you talk about it again, a little bit more in terms of that COINTELPRO. what you were thinking. again, give me that answer, but more into the COINTELPRO, what you thought--
BEN CHAVIS: OK. I think the best way to say it is this--one of the things I had in my mind on the way up to Gary was that, you know, the government may not allow us to have this convention. I mean, here are representatives from every Black organization in the country, from all walks of life, elected officials, nationalists, pan-Africanists, the whole diaspora of the domestic African-American community in one place at one time in 1972. Hey, that's a threat to the powers that be. And I had in my mind, I said, "I know they're gonna try to do something to stop this convention." And so when I first saw Diggs at the opening of the convention trying to gavel down the sentiment of the, of the, of the body, against the will of the body, I said, "Uh-oh, here it comes." But it was clear that the body was not gonna be deterred. The will of the people was gonna be expressed at that convention. As nowhere else in America at that time, the will of the Black people was going to have this convention. And we were going to have an open convention, not a closed convention. And that's why Diggs had to step back. And Amiri Baraka came forward, Imamu Baraka came, and with his African consensus brought the body back to some order. So that we could proceed. But it was not law and order. It was an order to proceed so that we could engage in the struggle of the convention.
SAM POLLARD: Excellent, excellent.


JUDY RICHARDSON: OK, Give me a sense of your reaction as you're watching Jesse's speech.
BEN CHAVIS: Well, first of all, you know, the convention was a lively convention. It was not a dull convention. I mean, there were very seldom moments where there was silence in the convention. And I remember when, ah, Jesse Jackson was introduced, Reverend Jesse Jackson was introduced, ah, he received, of course, a long round of applause. And people were very interested to hear what Jesse was going to say. Ah, but I think the most surprising thing about, ah, Jesse's speech was the end. No one would imagine that Reverend Jesse Jackson would, ah, affirm, ah, the nationalist call. And that was, "It's Nation-time. It's Nation-time." And I remember everybody raised their fists and, ah, stood up, literally, and repeated over and over again, "It's Nation-time. It's Nation-time." And in, as you looked around that auditorium, it felt like it was Nation-time. At least it sounded like it was Nation-time. And, ah, everybody expected, ah, Baraka to lead that chant. But keep in mind Baraka was playing the role of a facilitator, with African consensus. And so Jesse Jackson, ah, became the keynoter in terms of lifting the emotional level, ah, of the, ah, crowd to an all-time high, ah, with the call for Nation-time. But it was just not a hollow call. It was just not a rhetorical call. When people were repeating after Jesse, "It's Nation-time. It's Nation-time. It's Nation-time. Let the Black nation rise." I mean, you could hear it in the, reverberating Marcus Garvey. You could hear it reverberating all those prize struggles from the forties, and the thirties, and the fifties and the sixties. I mean, it came to be fulfilled in that moment, of crying that it's Nation-time, now[4] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 201-03, not next year, not next century, but now. In 1972. In Gary, Indiana.[5] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 205-47


JUDY RICHARDSON: What did it mean to be Nation-time?
BEN CHAVIS: Well, what, what, what it meant, ah, to be Nation-time: one, that we all had to work together more. That we had to hook up all of these local struggles that were represented at that convention. So we had some work to do. Because keep in mind, Jesse said, "It was Nation-time. It's Nation-time" at the beginning of the convention. So that put a lot of responsibility on those of us that delegates to make this a Nation-time convention. That this won't be the politics of now, this will be no social gathering. This is a working gathering. I remember the theme of the convention was "Kaze," it's that Black is of our all, Swahili for work. Work is that Black is our all. We have to work at this convention. Work around our difficulties. Because we were all not the same. There was a diversity in this, in this audience. Even n the state delegations. You know, I want to keep emphasizing there was not a monolithic crowd. Because we are a diverse people. And certainly we have been divided by the, ah, ploys, ah, that have been posed on our community. And so, "It's Nation-time. It's Nation-time" meant that we had to have the energy and the will to override some of the divisions in our community. To come together with a new sense of unity. A new sense of a purpose. And to leave Gary with an agenda that we all would be committed to around the nation.


JUDY RICHARDSON: So what happens when you see Coleman Young walk out? What do you think?
BEN CHAVIS: Well, first of all again, ah, when I saw Coleman Young attempt to lead the Michigan delegation from the convention, I had the same thought when I saw Diggs trying to gavel down in the conven--in the beginning of the convention, at the beginning of the convention, who also, incidentally, was from Michigan. I think that, ah, the role of the Michigan delegation at the convention, ah, was questionable. Even from the very beginning. But, ah, we were so glad that there were a lot of sisters and brothers--first of all, the whole delegation did not walk.


JUDY RICHARDSON: Sorry. Could you begin it again, and just mention, when you said "I had the same thing," just mention what that was. what that thought was.
BEN CHAVIS: Well, first of all, when, ah, Coleman Young began to lead part of the Michigan delegation out of the hall, Coleman was upset about something that was being voted on. And rather than stay there to argue his position, ah, he just arrogantly said, "I'm leaving." And some of the Michigan delegates, ah, began to leave with him. But I'm grateful that the whole delegation did not leave. But what I thought when I first saw Coleman Young get up to lead the delegation out was very similar to what I felt when I saw Diggs, ah, trying to gavel down the convention at the beginning of the convention. And that was: something may be imposed on us now to make sure this convention doesn't really happen. And from the outside. You know. COINTELPRO does not operate directly. It operates indirectly. Ah, seeds of dissension are planted from within. That's how COINTELPRO worked. And when I saw this happen, I said, "OK, here, here comes another seed of dissension trying to flower in this convention." But we knew that the majority of delegates at that convention were not going to be deterred by a partial Michigan delegation walkout. Ah, we observed it. Ah, certainly we did not like it. We felt some way, if there's any way to keep them in, we wanted to keep that un--unity--


JUDY RICHARDSON: Tell personally. what are you feeling personally when you see this happen?
BEN CHAVIS: Well, when I--my personal feeling when I saw this happening, I felt that, well, I feel sorry not only for, ah, Coleman Young, but for the delegates that are leaving out. Because they're walking out on history. They're walking out on a climactic[SIC] moment for our movement. At a moment we should be walking together and going farther, here is Mr. Young, walking backwards in time.


JUDY RICHARDSON: And did you ever feel that it threatened the convention?
BEN CHAVIS: Oh, no, at no time. See, one of the things about the Gary Convention, ah, the tremendous will that was expressed by us just being there. If somebody, uh--I don't want to say that.
JUDY RICHARDSON: Ah, hah, no, you don't want to say that.
BEN CHAVIS: There would have been very little that could have really deterred this convention from going forward. Ah, the walkouts, ah, had an impact, but it did not have the kind of impact that would have substantially thwarted the thrust of the convention.
BEN CHAVIS: I started to say, if somebody ha--
JUDY RICHARDSON: yes, I do. I wanted that piece of it. Yeah.
BEN CHAVIS: Sound good off camera, but on?
JUDY RICHARDSON: No, it's good on camera too.


JUDY RICHARDSON: Give me a sense of that energy at the convention. That people were writing all the time.
BEN CHAVIS: Yes, well again, it was a very serious convention. I mean, it wasn't a convention where, where it was just a spectator event, where all the delegates were just spectators watching the speeches. No. All the delegates were engaged into every item that went on. Everybody had out writing pads, some people had stacks of pads taking copious notes on everything that happened. And I remember the last day in particular, ah, it, the convention ended on a very serious, ah, note, because we were drafting, literally, in convention, the committee of the whole, ah, the National Black Agenda. And ah, ah, the leadership had said, "Well, you're gonna get this agenda, agenda several weeks after the convention," but a lot of the state delegates wanted to take the agenda home with them. And so a lot of us were making sure we had our notes. I was double-checking my notes with John Mendes, who was a student leader, president of the student body at Shaw University at that time, making sure that my copy matched his, and we, ah, making sure that we had all the resolutions. 'Cause some of the resolutions were about North Carolina. Part of the National Black Agenda, ah, convention resolution was a resolution on Wilmington. And you know I wanted to go back home and hurry up and tell the people. So I decided not to drive, but to fly. I couldn't wait. I wanted to fly home. And so I went to the airport, O'Hare, and flew home, ah, so that I could give the word to Wilmington right away. But it was a great day. And so the convention in Gary ended on a, just as serious note as it began. It ended, ah, on the theme of unity. It ended on a theme of the necessity to work together on a common agenda. And it ended on a sense of spirit that we must have renewed spirit as we go back to our local struggles.


JUDY RICHARDSON: How are you feeling personally?
BEN CHAVIS: My, my personal feeling at the end of the Gary Convention was that I felt like I had been to a revival. Keep in mind that I'm a minister. And I felt like I had been to a revival. But not just a revival on the spiritual plane. Although that's significant. But it was a revival on the political plane. It was a revival on, ah, the psychological plane. It was a revival on the cultural plane. I mean, ah, keep in mind, this was, ah, African-Americans being proud of who they were. Ah, Blackness was everywhere. The red, Black, and green was everywhere on the last day of the convention as it was on the first day. And everybody was trying to get mementos and souvenirs to take back home--


JUDY RICHARDSON: Give me a sense of what you personally felt had been accomplished. It's the last day of the convention. What are you feeling?
BEN CHAVIS: Well I felt, there were several, ah, feelings that I had personally about the accomplishments of the convention.
JUDY RICHARDSON: Sorry. Could you just go back and just say, "on the last day--"
SAM POLLARD: it was good when you said it felt like a revival.
BEN CHAVIS: On the last day of the convention, I mean, I was feeling like I had been at a revival. I mean, all I was waiting for was the benediction. So I could go home and tell all the people about the good news of what, what the convention decided, in terms of deciding the items on the National Black Agenda. For the first time, we will all have an agenda that we will take up, throughout the nation, to work on, together. And I was excited about that. And personally, I think it was, ah, a moment of, ah, ah, of remembrance, and also of fulfillment. I mean, I remember all the sisters and brothers who would have liked to, to come to Gary, ah, but who, who were no longer with us. You know, I, I, in a sense, ah, I had a good, great feeling that day, on the last day of the convention. But also I had a feeling of, of hoping that, ah, ah, some of the sisters and brothers who had been lost in the struggle, ah, ah, that we were at least showing that they didn't die in vain. We were at least showing that their suffering was not in vain. And that the struggle has a sense of continuity to it. I mean, the Gary Convention gave us all the step forward that was needed, ah, to prop us up and give us the renewed energy that we needed to go back home and to continue those struggles that we were all involved in.


JUDY RICHARDSON: And personally--
BEN CHAVIS: And personally, you know, I was fired up. I mean, I wasn't gonna let, as the song says, "Let nobody turn me around now." I mean, and that's how I felt. And I was even humming that in my mind, ah, on the way to the airport. 'Cause I wasn't going to drive back. I wanted to hurry up and get home. And I took a plane back to North Carolina. Because I wanted to go straight to the church in Wilmington to let everybody know, ah, of the great things that the Gary Convention had achieved.
SAM POLLARD: That's good.




JUDY RICHARDSON: OK. So on the day you come back from the convention and arrive back at the airport, what happened?
BEN CHAVIS: OK. CLEARS THROAT] I left Gary on the last day of the convention. And I took a plane back to North Carolina. And when I arrived, ah, at the airport, ah, I noticed that, ah, my car, that I was being followed, ah, by some police. You know, plain clothes. We had been getting used to them, and I knew they were following. Actually, there were two carloads of them, followed me, ah, back to my church in Wilmington. But I wasn't really worried. I saw them in the rear view mirror. But I wasn't worried about them, 'cause I had some good news for the people. I had some good news about the success of the Gary Convention. That's what was really what was on my mind, even though I knew that the police were following me, ah, under surveillance. So I go back to the church, ah, on Castro Street there in the Black community in Wilmington. I noticed that the whole block is being surrounded by, by cops. Like they're getting ready for a raid. And, my church had been raided several times before, ah, by local authorities, for no reason, just to intimidate the congregation. So I didn't want them to raid the church again because there were a lot of young people in the church. So I went outside, and I remember asking the police officer, "What's the problem? I mean, is, ah, what is happening? What is, why, what is all this display of law enforcement about?" And he said, "Reverend Chavis, ah, did you have a good time, ah, in Gary?" And I said, "Oh. You knew I was in Gary?" He said, "Oh, yes, we knew you were in Gary. We knew, we know about the convention. We followed you all the while you were there." I said, "You followed me?" He said, "Oh, no, we have partners that helped us out in Chicago, in Illinois." And I said, "OK, well, you know, so what? I went to the convention. I--please, I need to get back, I want to tell the people the good news about the church--about the convention. I want to tell the people in the church the good news." So anyway, this guy, me and this guy--


JUDY RICHARDSON: Back up just a second and tell me again, in terms of the cop, because I remember he mentioned he had been to your hotel room. just say that piece again.
SAM POLLARD: Let's stop a second. we really need to compress this, because, ah.


JUDY RICHARDSON: OK. so you've just arrived back from Gary. if you could mention that. and what happens as you come into Wilmington, to your church.
BEN CHAVIS: Right. Well, on the day the convention ended, I took a plane back to Gary, because I didn't want to wait. I wanted to hurry up and get the good news about what had happened. And as soon as I got back to Wilmington at the church, I noticed that all these police had, ah, surrounded the church. As soon as I got to the church, the police all of a sudden were surrounding the whole block. So I went outside and asked the policemen what was wrong. They said, "Reverend Chavis, how was your trip to Gary?" And I said, "How'd you know I was in Gary?" He said, "Well, we followed you. We even know what hotel room you were staying in." And I said, "Well, there's no problem, is there?" And he said, "Yes. You're under arrest. You're under arrest for the--"
JUDY RICHARDSON: I'm sorry. Stop just a second.
JUDY RICHARDSON: We should know--
SAM POLLARD: We could give you a script--
SAM POLLARD: It'll be all right.


JUDY RICHARDSON: OK. So you've just come from Gary. Give me a sense of that coming into Wilmington. You've just come from Gary.
BEN CHAVIS: Well, on the last day of the convention, I flew straight home to North Carolina. I was excited about giving the good news about what had happened in Gary. And as soon as I arrived at the church, I noticed that the whole block was being surrounded by policemen. So I went outside the church and said, "What's the problem?" And I remember the police sergeant said, "Reverend Chavis, how was your trip to Gary?" And I said, "How did you know I was in Gary?" And he said, "Oh, we have friends in Gary and in Chicago. We even know the hotel room you were staying in Chicago." And at that moment, before I could ask what the problem was, he said, "You're under arrest." Should I go into it now?
JUDY RICHARDSON: Oh, I'm sorry. Yes. And then say what--
BEN CHAVIS: At that moment, the police sergeant said, "You're under arrest." And they, and I said, "What for?" And they said, "We'll tell you when we get down to the, down to the, ah, police station." And they put me in the back of this car, ah, with two White policemen. And there was one, two White policemen in the front. And one of the White policemen had a shotgun, a double barrel shotgun. I'd never forget the sight of that shotgun. 'Cause after, I was sitting on the left, and they were to my right. And as soon as the car proceeded down the street, the officer, the police officer, allowed the shotgun to lean over right to my face, and I was looking down the barrel of the shotgun. And for that moment I said, "You know, my God. Does Gary threaten them this much? Does what, does Black people threaten them this much?" 'Cause I had just come from this big convention, and now I'm back in Wilmington, North Carolina, and this police officer is pointing a shotgun in my face. I'm under arrest, they haven't even told me what I'm arrested for. You know, and, and, and, I just thought to myself, you know, the price of African people, the price of Black people's struggle for freedom in this country, you know, is a life and death struggle. And there are penalties sometimes you have to pay just for gathering in convention. Just for trying to mobilize, just for trying to organize, you know. Sometimes, this society doesn't even want you to have the right to protest or have the right to struggle.


JUDY RICHARDSON: And what do you think they were saying to you? What were they trying to say to you? You had just come back from Gary. What are they trying to say to you with this?
BEN CHAVIS: Oh, the police were trying to say, clearly, "Even though you may have been to Gary and had a good convention, and even though you may be excited about your National Black Agenda, we're still in control. This is our society. And we ain't about to let the Black folks out of the box.
SAM POLLARD: That was good.


JUDY RICHARDSON: So give me a sense, give me that event again, and then what you think the police are saying to you with that.
BEN CHAVIS: Well, they have, ah, they arrested me and they put me in this back of this police car with two White police officers in the back seat with me, and there were two other White officers in the front. And as the car proceeded down the street, a shotgun all of a sudden of one of the officers was pointed right at my head. And I looked down the barrel of this, ah, double barrel shotgun, and for a moment, I thought, you know, what they are trying to say to me is that, "You may have been to this national Black convention. You may have got your agenda, but we're still in charge. And we ain't about to let Black folks out of the box." And of course my response was, I got to struggle against this. I can't let this cave me in. There were many sisters and brothers looking, lined up the street as the police car was taking us off into town. And so I took my eye off the barrel of the shotgun and looked straight ahead. And kept my mind on what the struggle was about and what the next move would be. Because I knew that the next move would have to be, ah, up to us, those of us who had just been arrested.
SAM POLLARD: Let's do it again.


JUDY RICHARDSON: So. Give me a sense of that event again, and what the police are trying to say.
BEN CHAVIS: So I was immediately arrested and placed in the back seat of this police car, with four other police officers, two in the front and two in the back. And before the car proceeded, this officer pointed a shotgun right in my face. And I remember looking down this double barrel shotgun and I had to think quickly, you know, ah, because, one of the things which I had just put--fear, intimidate you. And I decided that, um, I was not gonna let anything turn me around at that moment. Although I knew what the police were trying to say was, "OK, you've been to Gary, Indiana. You've been to this convention and you've got your National Black Agenda now. But we are still in charge. And we aren't about to let Black folks out of the box." I knew that's what they were trying to say. But it was my responsibility not only to see the shotgun, but to see another responsibility. And that is to let these policemen know my commitment, my commitment is lifelong. That you can't let any form of intimidation, ah, deter you--a shotgun, a false arrest, no form of intimidation can hold this movement back. And your commitment has to be lifelong.
JUDY RICHARDSON: That's good. That's it.
SAM POLLARD: That's it. That was good.


JUDY RICHARDSON: Give me a sense of why you felt a need to join a Black nationalist church, and then how it evolved.
BEN CHAVIS: OK. Although now I'm an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, ah, I was first ordained actually as a Black Christian Nationalist minister. And this was something that I decided to do, that I need to do. I needed to connect my faith with the Movement. And there wasn't one place to do it in the early 1970s, and that was the Black Christian Nationalist Movement headed by Albert Cleague. And because there was a place where we began to take down all of the White theology. We refused to, ah, see Jesus as some White man with blond hair and blue eyes. Ah, and to talk about a Black Christ. Ah, we began to see God, ah, having done something with Black people specially, and that we have a responsibility to struggle against all forms of evil and oppression. But out of the Black Christian Nationalist movement emerged the Black Christian Pan-Africanist Movement, which I later became a Pan-Africanist, because I wanted to have a more broader world view, ah, to connect the diaspora of African people. And again, one's ideology needs to be connected to one's theology. And that's why we eventually emerged to a Black Christian Pan-Africanist Movement.


JUDY RICHARDSON: And so your church, then, is what?
BEN CHAVIS: Ah, the church that I founded in Wilmington, ah, in the early 1970s was a Black Christian Pan-Africanist Church. The First African Congregational Church is the name of the church.
JUDY RICHARDSON: Cut. All right, that's fine they can use it for the bool--


JUDY RICHARDSON: You had given me a sense that at chicago you were
JUDY RICHARDSON: --somebody, yes==


JUDY RICHARDSON: OK. Give me a sense that you were uniquely aware of the Hampton/Clark assassination when you were in Gary, staying in Gary. I mean in Chicago.
BEN CHAVIS: When I was staying at the hotel in Chicago, during the Gary Convention, I was acutely aware of the murders of Clark and Hampton, ah, leaders of the Black Panther Party of Chicago. Which was a COINTELPRO assassination. And so I was acutely aware of that, very uneasy about even being in Chicago, getting ready to go to an all-Black convention.
SAM POLLARD: That's about it. I don't know what else to say.


JUDY RICHARDSON: Tell me what you personally feel when you see the Michigan, part of the Michigan delegation, walk out with coleman young.
BEN CHAVIS: Well, first of all, I thought that when I first saw, ah, Coleman Young attempting to lead members of the Michigan delegation out of the convention, you know, I said, "Well, why are they doing that? I mean, this is where the action is. There's nothing going on outside of the convention." And, and, and I felt that, ah, it was an incorrect move by Coleman Young. He disagreed with something that was going on in the convention. Ah, but what should have happened was to stay there and debate what you disagree about. If anything, if Gary meant anything, this was to be a time when we all hang in there and struggle over our differences, you know, over the divisions in our community. And there was some significant divisions, you know. It was not monolithic. It was diverse. But the point of Gary was to hang in one place at a time and to resolve some of those issues, resolve some of those things. So I was very personally hurt to see part of the Michigan delegation get out, and go up and leave the convention. Um, I'm glad that some remained--


JUDY RICHARDSON: Could you then also say, "and what I was thinking--" Start again and go right into: I thought--
BEN CHAVIS: And not repeat what I just said?
SAM POLLARD: No, no, repeat it.
JUDY RICHARDSON: Yeah, you have to repeat it.
BEN CHAVIS: You know, when I first saw Coleman Young get up and attempt to lead part of the Michigan delegation out of the convention, I, I said, "Why is this happening? You know, ah, the action is in here, not to leave the convention." And my first thought was, that I remembered when Hat, when--
BEN CHAVIS: When I first saw Coleman Young get up and try to lead part of the Michigan delegation out of the convention, I was very concerned. I didn't know what was happening. Because, ah, everybody should have hung in there and resolved some of their differences. And, ah, you know, the image of Coleman Young leaving the convention--
SAM POLLARD: Let's cut a second. [TEAM B]
SAM POLLARD: The next interview.


JUDY RICHARDSON: OK. give me a sense of your personal reaction when coleman young leads some of the Michigan delegation out, and how it reflected on what you were thinking what Diggs did.
BEN CHAVIS: You know, when I first saw Coleman Young get up and attempt to lead part of the Michigan delegation out of the convention, I, I first thought, "Wow, this is very similar to what Diggs tried to do." Diggs was also from Michigan. And I thought that, ah, Coleman Young, ah, you know, may be allowing outside influences, ah, to attempt to disrupt the convention. 'Cause it was clear Coleman Young had another agenda. It wasn't the agenda for the, for that particular convention. And, ah, I really felt concern for some of the delegates that were, who were leaving, following him out of the convention. 'Cause they were like walking out on history. They were like walking out on an opportunity that we had to move forward as a people. And I wanted all echelons[SIC] as possible African-Americans to be in there, particularly the Michigan delegation. And so, you know, I, I felt very personally, ah, hurt by it. Ah, anytime, ah, ah, there is unnecessary division--there's already a lot of natural divisions in our community--but that was an unnecessary division, ah, that was, ah, propelled by some other interest.


JUDY RICHARDSON: And talk about, when you said divisions, what was the mishmash of all the different groups were there? I mean, wasn't there a sense--I mean there were so many different groups. how did you all stay together? give a sense of that.
BEN CHAVIS: There were a lot of different groups at the Gary Convention. Ah, from extreme left to extreme right-wing. Ah, from nationalists to, to Pan-Africanists to integrationists to, ah, ah, Marxist-Leninists. Ah, you name it. Some folk came without any ideology. They was just there, ah, out of local struggles. And it--but it was important for all of those ingredients to be there. Because that was representative of who we were in 1972. And the important thing was for us to hang in there and struggle over some of the divisions, over some of those, ah, things that had kept us from coming together. And at least if we could do this in 1972, it, it, it, it gives us another chance to carve out a more positive and more productive future for us in light of all the repression that we were going through at the time.
JUDY RICHARDSON: Thank you, Sir. OK, and we're going to have some room tone.