“Although we’ve accomplished a lot here in Cobb County, there is much to be accomplished. We need to have more people who look like you sitting on the bench,” he told members of Marietta’s Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church. “Those who sit in judgment of their fellow man sometimes might need to look like the people they sit in judgment on.”
There has never been a black Superior Court judge in Cobb.
On Sunday morning, Benham was a guest speaker at the 24th annual Black History Month Celebration at Pleasant Grove, pastored by Pastor Benjamin Lockhart Jr. The celebration’s theme was “Victory Not Yet Accomplished.”
Benham, 64, said there is also a need for more minorities in business ownership and other high positions. He praised the election of the nation’s first black president, which he admitted he never thought would occur in his lifetime, but cautioned that there is more work to be done.
“But I applaud you here in Cobb County,” Benham said. “For though you have miles to go, you’ve come a long way. You’re one of the most progressive counties in this state.”
Benham was the first black justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, as well as the first black person to sit on the Georgia Court of Appeals.
He was named to the high court by Gov. Joe Frank Harris in December 1989 to fill an unexpired term and first won election to a six-year term of his own in July 1990. Benham served as chief justice of the court from 1995 to 2001.
A Cartersville native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1967 from Tuskegee University and law degrees from the University of Georgia and University of Virginia. In April 1984, he was appointed to the state Court of Appeals by fellow Cartersville native Gov. Harris and prior to that worked briefly as a trial attorney for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and for many years in private practice.
However, it was in Cobb where Benham recalled he tried his first case 41 years ago. He was the first black lawyer to do so, he said.
“Not only did I try it, but I won it,” Benham said. “And it shows that we can work together to accomplish things and sometimes race is an irrelevant factor.”
Though he has achieved many accolades during his distinguished legal career, Benham said none of them would have been possible without the investment of his church community back home. As a high school senior, he recalled that members of his church — composed of janitors, maids, porters and cooks — raised $25, presented in a white handkerchief, to help send him to college.
“That was more than 90 percent of the people in my church made for a whole week’s work,” he said.
“But when times got hard and I thought I was in over my head, I’d look in my little pasteboard box and I’d see that handkerchief. And I’d think, ‘Well, somebody has invested in my future and I owe them a return on their investment. So I think I’ll hang on a little while longer.’”
The Rev. Dorie Tuggle, associate minister at Zion Baptist Church in Marietta, was the guest speaker at a later service.
Nicole Moffett, a minister at Pleasant Grove, said the church’s annual black history month program is an opportunity to commemorate brave pioneers and celebrate advancement.
“Our heritage is bittersweet, but rich,” she said. “We have learned to convert our weeping into laughter, our lamenting into singing, and defeat into victory, through God’s grace and his inspiration.”
At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, The Cobb branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will conduct its 8th annual Black History Program at Turner Chapel AME Church on North Marietta Parkway at Fairground Street in Marietta. The event is free and open to the public.