While performers loved Ben’s, the spot also was an important place for political figures as well. Ben’s became the center of the community during the Civil Rights Movement, donating food during the March on Washington in 1963 and also serving as a meeting place for the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), which was headquartered across the street. The SNCC leader, Stokely Carmichael, ate at Ben’s every day, according to Nizam Ali, and he even brought Dr. Martin Luther King there.
“Today, every politician in the city will tell you, if you don’t have your meetings at Ben’s Chili Bowl, you’re not really a serious politician,” Demczuk says. “Dr. King would use Ben's during the Poor People's Campaign. Dr. King, Jesse Jackson, and the staff would use Ben's as a place to meet, get a hot dog and have a discussion. SNCC did the same thing. Walter Fauntroy who headed up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was Dr. King's DC coordinator, would often meet at Ben's, too.”
Following the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, race riots raged through the neighborhood for five days. The National Guard was tear-gassing civilians and businesses shuttered in fear. “We put a sign in the window that said ‘Soul Brother,’” Virginia Ali told The Washingtonian. “We were not the only ones who did that. It was supposed to identify an African-American business. Some of them were saved, but some were burned.”
A city-wide curfew was imposed; Carmichael, however, lobbied for Ben’s to legally stay open. “My mom and dad asked Stokely, ‘What can we do to help?’,” Nizam Ali says. “And he answered, ‘We need you to stay open.’ And he made it happen. He was able to get our employees passes to break curfew and to come to work. I think that was important. People needed a place to go. Ben’s was comfort food, but also a meeting place.” That cemented Ben’s reputation as always being open. Always.
After the riots, the neighborhood sunk into years of decline during the 70s. The drug trade moved in and scores of businesses moved out. But Ben’s stood strong. “There was a ridiculous amount of drug trafficking and crime,” Nizam Ali remembers. “And DC was the murder capital of the world all those years. But we always felt safe. It was always a place where we respected the customer no matter who they were and they looked out for us, for the most part. People always had amazing respect for Mom, especially. From dealers to gang members - they would look at her as a mother figure.”