By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Condolences and expressions continue for the passing of Jack W. Gravely on Monday (August 15) which has sent grief waves throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. Gravely, who recently resigned as the Interim Executive Director of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP died at the VCU Medical Center of cardiac arrest, according to Rodney Thomas, a former lobbyist for the organization and a close friend.
Gravely was a long time activist and leader with the State and National NAACP. He hosted also “The Jack Gravely Show” on Richmond’s Rejoice WREJ-AM 990 (formerly WLEE).
From 1996 to 2002, he hosted a talk show, “The Gravely and Company,” on WRVA-AM. He served in positions as president and executive secretary of the State office of the NAACP from November 1976 to January 1985.
Gravely later held a position at National Public Radio (NPR) as assistant to its president for affirmative action, and as a special assistant to then-National NAACP leader Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks. He was a Fayetteville State University undergraduate and graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. In 1995, Gravely served as the first director of diversity at the Federal Communications Commission. In 2015, Gravely rejoined the State NAACP as Interim Executive Director to replace King Salim Khalfani.
Due to a dispute with the State NAACP Executive Committee over his role and who would be the voice of the organization on key issues, Gravely resigned July 15 of this year. “Jack came back at a time when the state conference was foundering and got branches working with the state office again,” Thomas said in the Richmond Times Dispatch. He said Gravely had reestablished the NAACP as a viable organization when he was told he was diagnosed with cancer.
Thomas said since late July, Gravely had been hospitalized at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the VCU Medical Center, where he died. Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder called Gravely “a good friend and also a good worker in advancing what I call the civil rights agenda.” Wilder said he and Gravely worked together when he was a state senator on single-member legislative districts to replace multi-member districts to get Blacks elected to state office.
Wilder said he and Gravely worked on a number of civil rights issues and also worked to abolish, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” as the state song. Third District U.S. Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, said he met Gravely, then head of the Virginia NAACP, while serving as branch president of the Newport News NAACP. “I was able to see firsthand what a forceful voice he was on civil rights issues,” Scott said.
“But others will remember Gravely as a staple of local Richmond talk radio,” he said. “He used his radio program to highlight and discuss at length issues that often went unnoticed or unreported by other media outlets,” Scott said. U.S. Senator Mark Warner called Gravely “a steady presence, urging constructive dialogue and fighting for fairness and positive change.”
He said, “Jack always lent his strong voice to important issues that were commonly ignored.”
King Khalfani was a student at Virginia Union University when he met Gravely in 1981, then the Executive Director the State NAACP. As a student leader, Khalfani said he invited Gravely, whom he called his mentor, to the VUU campus to speak to students on various political and rights issues. “If there is one word to describe Jack’s legacy, it’s sacrifice,” he said. “He would stand up for the other person. He was involved in all of the recent civil rights battles in this state.”
Khalfani said not only did Gravely weather the battle waged by those who fought against civil rights , but also, he dealt with the internal tensions between himself as Executive Director and the Executive Committee over the voice and direction of the State NAACP. Linda Byrd Harden, who was Executive Director of the State NAACP from the 1984-1998, said she worked under five state presidents and Gravely was one.
She said she and Gravely served during some of the most tense and historic moments in the state’s recent political and civil rights history. Harden said apart from being a good administrator and advocate, Gravely was a great orator. Harden said during the early 1990s, when the Democrats last controlled the redistricting process, she, Gravely and Khalfani helped draw up the current majority Black State House of Delegates and Senate Districts as the Third Congressional District, now held by Congressman Scott.
“There were so many battles,” she said. “Jack was passionate about voting rights and fighting discrimination. Jack should be placed on the same level as Samuel Tucker and Oliver Hill, who were civil rights leaders and mentors to both of us.” “People do not realize the sacrifices and the struggles that civil rights activists and their families like Dr. King, Medgar Evers or Jack Gravely endure,” said Harden. “They have to fight their own people and the racists. We do not appreciate them until they are gone. We have lost a true soldier of freedom.”
John Hines resigned as Area II Chair of the State NAACP at the same time Gravely left his post in July. He said the last time he saw Gravely was during the recent State Executive Board meeting in July. “I could see the stress on his face … we knew something as wrong,” said Hines. “But we realized there was a lot of angst and tension at that meeting that played on him..”
“Jack upheld the NAACP. Why do you think he came back to a job that only paid $150 a month when he did not have to do it,” said Hines. “He knew the organization and wanted to get it back on track. He knew the mission of the NAACP and it was not about ego or what you could get out of it for yourself.” March Cromuel, who was President of the Chesapeake Branch of the NAACP for 20 years, said that “the NAACP has lost a very valuable asset.”
“He lived and was dedicated to the NAACP,” said Cromuel, who first met Gravely in 1989. “He carried the torch of the organization and what it stood for which was making sure all people were treated fairly. James Bailey, a leader in the Portsmouth NAACP, said he met Gravely in 1981 when he wanted to devote his energies to an organization people used the word “dormant” to describe. He said during his final days, Gravely was seeking to revive it.
“When you met him you knew he was in charge, he was straight forward and no nonsense,” said Bailey. “I knew at one point the state NAACP officials wanted to silence him. But he overcame all that and when he saw discrimination, he would give it a Black eye.” Andrew Shannon, the Peninsula President of the Virginia Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said Gravely worked with his organization on various issues. “Jack’s legacy was that he worked for justice and righteousness,” said Shannon. “When the state NAACP was going through challenges, he came back. He had a heart for the organization, to make it viable again. “He will be greatly missed.”