Longtime Fresno civil-rights activist Ben Benavídez died of natural causes early Monday at age 69.
For decades, Benavídez was a force in the struggle against racial discrimination.
Benavídez was national and state president of the Mexican American Political Association in the 1990s and early 2000s. He fought for immigrant families in rural Central Valley communities and throughout the state.
Benavídez had battled leukemia and suffered two strokes over the years, said Juan Avitia, who was president of MAPA until August.
Avitia compared Benavídez to Martin Luther King Jr. and said he was like a father figure to many local activists.
“That man was powerful,” he said. “Right now, there’s a big hole in our community.”
While serving as MAPA president, Benavídez took the organization away from its mainly political functions to focus more on education. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he led boycotts and walkouts that helped more Latinos win city and school board positions.
He spoke out in 2002 against police shootings and called for an independent auditor to investigate alleged police misconduct. He battled with school boards in the Dinuba and Kings Canyon Unified districts to drop at-large elections that he and others believed prevented minorities from being elected. He defended the rights of undocumented immigrant children after three undocumented students were arrested on the Roosevelt High School campus in 1998.
Avitia said Benavídez taught him the power of his voice and his vote. He stressed the importance of using nonviolence and working with people of different races and ethnic groups.
Benavídez was recognized in different ways for his contributions to the Valley. A Parlier elementary school was named after him in 2004. He also was honored with many awards for his advocacy.
In a 2007 Bee article about his Latino Legends of the 20th Century award, Benevídez said there was improvement in the lives of Latinos and other groups, but more work remained.
“I open the paper every day and still see injustices that need to be fought,” Benavídez said. “I see my brothers and sisters being arrested and sent to Mexico. I see people who are willing to work hard being treated like criminals.”
Benavídez fought up to the end, said Avitia.
“I know he’s smiling down on us now,” he said.