Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., M.Div. '80, was the guest speaker for a conversation hosted by the Duke Divinity Alumni Association for the Divinity School community.

Chavis speaks in a Westbrook classroom at Duke Divinity
Chavis addresses the Divinity School community.

As a teenager, Chavis, a native of Oxford, N.C., was a youth coordinator and assistant to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He rose to prominence in the civil rights movement, was ordained in the United Church of Christ, served as a regional program director for its Commission for Racial Justice, and has served as executive director of the NAACP. Known for coining the term environmental racism, he is also a leader in the environmental justice movement.

"I feel like I'm back home," he said during his talk. "My time at Duke 42 years ago really helped me to sharpen my theological tools and understanding. My theological training at Duke was fundamentally transformative."

Chavis transferred to Duke Divinity School in 1978 after he was unjustly convicted of arson as a leader of the Wilmington 10 and sentenced to a 34-year prison sentence. He could no longer pursue the M.Div. program he had started at Howard University, and he arranged a transfer to Duke.

He managed to convince the North Carolina state prison system to move him to prison in Hillsborough, N.C., where he was bused to campus each day for his two years of study. He talked about trying to complete his classwork on campus each day by 5 p.m., when he would be returned to prison, facing lights off at 10 p.m. each night. Determined to do well and complete his degree, he often had to make the prison bathroom his study hall after 10 p.m. Eventually, his conviction was overturned, and he and the rest of the Wilmington 10 were freed in 1980. 

A student wearing a mask asks a quesiton
Chavis took questions from students, faculty, and staff.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Chavis responded to questions from attendees and to prompts from Minoka Yonts, director of alumni relations, discussing his history in the civil rights movement, environmental justice, the interconnectedness of justice ministries, his leadership in the Million Man March in 1995, and his advice for those training for ministry.

"We have to be a little bit more prophetic," he said. "One of the things I learned here at Duke: prophetic is not telling the future. Prophetic is discerning what is it God wants you to do right now, today, this hour, right now. That's prophetic. I think a lot of times, the church at large, I think we note history, we note tradition, but there's a hesitation to learn from that tradition, to learn from that history, and to not just imagine, but to embrace—by working together—shaping a better future forward."

Shaping a better future doesn't mean accepting what our leaders tell us, he explained: "In seminary, we should be sharpening our questioning skills. We got to question the government. we got to question the United Nations, we got to question the World Council of Churches, we got to question the National Council of Churches, and sometimes we got to look in the mirror and question ourselves."


The Rev. Dr. Chavis will deliver the Wilson Lecture on Sept. 15. His lecture, "Environmental Justice: Past, Present, and Future" will take place Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in Duke Chapel (and via livestream) and will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Warren County protests in North Carolina. The nonviolent protests in 1982 surrounded the state's disposal of soil laced with PCBs in the predominately Black community. Learn more and RSVP.