Man in Motion

updated 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN SIX BLACK SECRET SERVICE agents were refused service at a Denny's restaurant in Maryland last April, they went to court—and Benjamin Chavis went to work. The newly elected executive director of the NAACP paid a call on Denny's executives and suggested, for starters, that restaurants submit to random inspections attended by NAACP members to ensure that customers of all races are treated fairly. Then he went to breakfast. "At approximately 8:20 this morning I visited a Denny's," he told a reporter recently. "And I'm proud to report that I was served."

Thanks primarily to Chavis's pressure, on July 1 Denny's announced a seven-year, $1 billion program to help minority franchisees open 50 new restaurants and to place blacks in management jobs. The NAACP-approved package "will set a standard for future relations between the civil rights community and corporate America," said Chavis, a 45-year-old movement veteran.

Appointed by NAACP board members to head the country's oldest minority rights organization on April 9, Chavis was almost immediately in motion. On April 13, after the second round of Rodney King verdicts, he flew to L.A. and for five days patrolled the housing projects of South Central L.A., sleeping on the couches of the city's poorest residents. A week later, he met with 200 gang members at a "peace summit" in Kansas City, Mo. "I'm not a stranger to the 'hood," he says. "These young brothers and sisters need attention."

Chavis, one of five children, grew up in racially segregated Oxford, N.C., the son of a brick mason and a schoolteacher. At 12, Ben was handed a membership card in the NAACP by his father. "It was like a badge of honor," he recalled. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Chavis worked for several civil rights organizations in the late 1960s while studying chemistry at the University of North Carolina.

In 1970, Chavis became a minister with the United Church of Christ, which a year later dispatched him to Wilmington, N.C., to organize a church-sponsored boycott of segregated schools. The local police chief ordered Chavis to leave town. When he refused, police arrested him and nine others—called the Wilmington 10—on charges of burning a white-owned grocery store. Chavis was eventually convicted and, in 1976, sentenced to four years in prison. While there, he earned a masters in divinity from Duke University. In 1979, after three witnesses admitted they had lied at his trial, the conviction was overturned and he was released. "One of the things I learned from Martin Luther King Jr. is that there is no room for bitterness," Chavis says of the ordeal. "You can't take that baggage around with you."

He spent eight years as the head of the Commission for Racial Justice before being tapped by the NAACP which he is trying to refocus on the issue of "economic equality" and job creation. "Lord knows that I've known my share of picket lines in my life. But that just gets you to the threshold," he says. "I want to go across the threshold—and bring something back that will improve the quality of life in our communities."

LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles, KEN MYERS in Cleveland and TOM NUGENT in Baltimore

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