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Q&A with Benjamin Chavis on ‘Blood Done Sign My Name’

Nate Parker who plays Dr. Benjamin Chavis in “Blood Done Sign My Name.” Photo courtesy of Allied Integrated Marketing.

Nate Parker who plays Dr. Benjamin Chavis in “Blood Done Sign My Name.” Photo courtesy of Allied Integrated Marketing.

By Adrianne Murchison

The civil rights movement and its aftermath continue to create many bonds, tying together the people who experienced or witnessed racial injustice.

It’s true for Benjamin Chavis, Timothy B. Tyson and Jeb Stuart, brought together in director Stuart’s new film “Blood Done Sign My Name.” The movie opened the Pan African Film and Arts Festival in Los Angeles last week and is set for wider release Friday. It tells the story of the 1970 murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow in Oxford, N.C., and the unrest that followed, including a boycott of white-owned businesses led by Chavis, Marrow’s cousin. Then a young high school teacher and civil rights organizer, Chavis is co-chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and former head of the NAACP.

“It’s not a movie that is easily told,” Stuart said. “It’s not an apology for white sins. It’s a story of heroes bonded by a particular story.”

The film is based on Tyson’s memoir of the same title and stars Rick Schroder and Nate Parker (from “The Great Debaters”). Tyson, now a visiting professor at Duke University, was 10 at the time of Marrow’s murder, the son of a progressive minister who tried to bring about change in his congregation. Stuart said he felt an instant connection when he read the memoir in 2006.

“Tim Tyson is the son of a white Methodist minister in Oxford, and I was living in Gastonia, N.C., the son of a white Presbyterian minister. It wasn’t like a civil rights story of 1963 or ’64; 1970 was a different era. It almost felt like the dawn of a new age and yet we have a town [Oxford] that was completely segregated,” Stuart recalled.

Oxford is a different place now according to Chavis, who still has a home there.
In 1971, he became known as a member of the Wilmington Ten and spent eight years in prison, convicted of inciting a crowd to burn down a grocery store in Wilmington, N.C. That conviction was overturned in 1980.

Chavis recently discussed “Blood Done Sign My Name” and why he believes race still matters.

Q: What do you say to young folks who think civil rights is ancient history?
A: Some people have this notion that we are post-civil rights or post-racial, [with] which I disagree. There are more economic- and poverty-related issues, but they are still racial. There are more minorities who are having foreclosures than anyone else. Look at who is incarcerated in Georgia or North Carolina. Look at high school dropout rates. It’s disproportionate.

Q: What would you like the message of the film to be?
A: Anger should be channeled into something constructive, not destructive. I was angry that they killed Henry Marrow, but I decided to organize a movement that could effect real change and not just express my anger in some self-destructive way. We all have in our hands the power to change our circumstances but it requires some kind of participation. A movie like “Blood” serves as a reality check for young people.

Q: How long did the Oxford boycott of white-owned businesses last?
A: Six months. When African-Americans in that community decided to withhold their money and go spend their money in other places, they were more respected and welcome. It made a tremendous difference.

Q: How did your experiences and prison time shape your life?
A: Obviously it was a part of my evolution. I was a veteran of the civil rights movement before going to prison. I had to be an inspiration for my Wilmington Ten co-defendants. I was 23. The others were 15 and 16 years old. I took my knowledge, resilience and faith into prison. So the prison experience did not crush me. In fact, I got stronger. Nelson Mandela and me were pen pals. I got my master’s degree from Duke University while I was in prison. I wrote a book, “Psalms from Prison.” Time is relative. It’s about how you use your time.

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