Friday, April 14, 2006

In 1993, Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., a Christian minister with a long history in the civil rights movement, was elected executive director of the NAACP on a platform of reaching out to a younger generation of African Americans.

Thirteen years later, he has undergone a profound spiritual and professional transformation -- he has become a Muslim and taken the name Muhammad. And he says his goal of promoting racial and economic justice by including young African Americans in the process remains the same.

"My life is a spiritual journey," said Muhammad, 58. "The movement today is something different, but at the end of the day it has very similar goals."

Born in Oxford, N.C., Muhammad came from a family of civil rights activists and had marched on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1987, he became the director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. When he moved to the NAACP, some in the organization expressed concern about the people he was reaching out to, including Louis Farrakhan, the controversial Nation of Islam leader. When it was revealed that Muhammad had agreed to use more than $300,000 in NAACP funds to settle a sexual harassment claim, he was fired in 1994.

From there his life changed dramatically.

He forged a close relationship with Farrakhan and was national director of the Million Man March, the huge civil rights rally that came to Washington in 1995. After becoming a Muslim, Chavis was appointed the East Coast regional minister of the Nation of Islam.

"It's the same God," Muhammad said of his decision to switch faiths. "I just come at it from a different theological perspective."

His most recent career move came in 2001. With hip-hop celebrity Russell Simmons, Muhammad founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a coalition of musicians, civil rights activists and others that aims to educate at-risk youth about important life issues, such as personal finance, through the musical language they know best. He serves as its president and chief executive.

The organization's goal is "to use the influence and power of hip-hop to promote positive social change," Muhammad said. "We're working to eradicate poverty."

-- Zachary A. Goldfarb

© 2006 The Washington Post Company