The Little Brown Boy with Glasses: An interview with Justice Robert Benham

The Little Brown Boy with Glasses: An interview with Justice Robert Benham

Janai Hall, Writer

For Justice Robert Benham, being a judge is not about punishing people. It is about salvaging people. Justice Benham, the longest serving and first African American member of the Supreme Court of Georgia, is a lifelong resident of Georgia and a Cartersville native.


JH: What does Cartersville mean to you?


To start off, my family has been in Georgia since the late 1840s. My family was owned by lawyers in Connecticut by a man named Major Benham. He came from Connecticut to Cassville, Georgia and purchased about 60 slaves. My great-great-grandparents were part of that group, and they took his last name. One of the great-great grandchildren of that family is a lawyer now in Cartersville and one of the daughters taught school with my wife years ago. She was the one who acquainted us with the history of the family. She invited us to her house and gave us all sorts of documents from that era. So, my family has lived in what is now Cartersville since that period. I am a big history buff myself and my wife fondly says I do not really know the difference between appreciating history and living in the past, but I accept it as a good criticism. You know, having those connections means a lot. Knowing things about my great grandparents, about uncles and cousins and my momma. I remember fondly as a child, my mom used to always say, “Follow the blood and you can know a lot about yourself.” She knew a lot about her family history. So, a fair appreciation of the histories is good because you know the connections and you know the links and it allows you to appreciate contributions others have made over a period.


JH: Did you face any struggles/discrimination at the beginning of your career?


It was the late 60s, in fact there were interesting things that took place between then and the 60s. My schoolteacher had a retirement just last month and she reminded me of my attempts to integrate the library at the white school. I honestly did not see myself as integrating it. They simply had a book over there that I wanted. We did not have it in our library, so I went over there to get it and believe it or not, I got it. I remember when I walked in the library, it was like everything stopped. As if the world were about to come to an end. One of the ladies in there asked if she could help me and the other people sort of drew back. They were probably thinking, “This is segregation. We can’t give books to a black kid!” And she said, “Well what would you like?” and I said, “I want this book” and she told the other ladies who were there to go somewhere and sit down because she was going to take care of me. She then said, “Do you have a library card?” and I said, “No I don’t have one.” She then said, “Well let me give you one.” She then filled it out and gave me a library card. That was against the law at the time. It was against everything at the time. But here was a woman, who just wanted to do what she was hired to do, give books to people. I remember after integration came, whenever I went in the library, she would always go back to the little cart file and she would tell me, “You’re the one and I’m the one who gave you the card.” She was always so proud of that. It was her attempt to try to make this system work.


 JH: Do you remember what the book was?

No, I do not. My high school teacher told me, but I forgot. She was the one that got the call at my school that this black kid had come to get a book. My high school teacher said when they got the call that I had come over to get a book, they completely disavowed me. They said they did not know me, send me, or have nothing to do with me. You know, it was a different era, but to me it was an era where people took risks doing things because they knew they were the right things to do.


JH: Were there any people in your life that doubted your passion for law?

There were all sorts of people in my life. I remember very vividly when Brown v. The Board of Education was decided in 1954, I was in 4th or 5th grade and my teacher went around the room and asked people what they wanted to be. Of course, when she got to me, I said I wanted to be a lawyer. I remember exactly what her response was. She said, “You can’t be a lawyer because you are colored.” At the time, I was not the most obedient child. So, I said, “Well you might not be able to be lawyer, but I can be a lawyer.”


JH: Before you graduated from Tuskegee University, did you know what law school you wanted to attend?

 I applied to several schools. Of course, I had been at a summer program at Harvard. The year before I had been in a program at the University of Michigan. It was called the Reggie Program, named after Reggie Herbert Lehman. It was a program that started introducing minorities to law school. I was in one of those programs through the summer of my junior year. Even though I was in class at Tuskegee, I spent more time at white universities than I spent at black universities. That was because I was in that program up at Harvard. So, I had a lot of different exposures and such. However, when I got back home, the people in Cartersville told me that I should give some thought to the University of Georgia. So, I applied to Vanderbilt, Emory and the UGA and I got accepted to all three of them. Then Georgia gave me a scholarship where you could receive money for law school. Another thing that UGA had in place was that if you came back to practice law in Georgia, your debt was forgiven. One of the people who was trying to convince me was one of my former classmates, Jeff. I was out to lunch with him, and his son and he said to me, “Let me take you over and introduce you to my dad,” because his father was a Superior Court judge. So, we sat and talked with his father, and he says, “Where are you going to practice law?”  and I said, “I’m going to California to practice law.” I had relatives out there, so I wanted to go away for a bit because I needed a breather and fresh air. He then quoted a Chinese proverb that states, “You cannot complain about your snow on your neighbor’s roof when your own roof is unclean.” He then says, “Why don’t you come back home to practice law?” That was the last thought on my mind. He goes on to mention that I know Georgia and Georgia knows me. “It seems to me that you would have a better chance here at home,” he says. Looking back, that was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. He not only said “Come back home to practice law,” but he also said, “Come back home and I will help you make it.” With that, I could not say no.

JH: What is your favorite part about being a lawyer?

First off, Lawyers put on the armor of the law to go out and slay the dragon of injustice. If we are able, we will keep on doing it, because that is what the law is designed to do. Believe it or not, that is what I have fun doing—representing the downtrodden, the put-upon and the oppressed and fleshing out the Constitution and the Bill of Rights so that it provides protection to all our citizens. When I was a child, my dad sat my brothers and I down and gave us these life lessons: Serve your God, sacrifice for your family, share with your neighbors, and, if found worthy, do public service, if called on, lay down your life for your country.


JH: Was retiring from the Supreme Court of Georgia a difficult decision?

It has been a difficult decision. I have always enjoyed every day of service to the people of Georgia, but after thirty-four years on the bench, it is time for me to step down. Once I was at peace with this decision, I wanted to let people know as soon as possible, especially those who were hoping to run in an open election. Furthermore, it is my hope that the timing of my retirement will cause minimal disruption to the court. One thing I told the upcoming attorneys standing before me was that as judges and lawyers, we are healers. I hope you realize that they realize role as healers.


Justice Benham recalls being given many chances and opportunities throughout his life. His advice for everyone is to reach out and give someone a chance because that chance — that salvation — can change one’s life. So, do what is right. Give others a chance to do something that could change the world.