Always do the right thing

Da Mayor: “Always do the right thing.”
Mookie: “That’s it?”
Da Mayor: “That’s it.”
Mookie: “I got it, I’m gone.”
Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee (1989)

Did Dr. George S. Benson apologize for his racism?

That was, without a doubt, one of the first questions that came to mind among the leadership at Harding University when the online petition to change the name of the campus auditorium from George S. Benson Auditorium to Botham Jean Auditorium dropped in June 2020.

I also believe–very strongly–there was a “Drop what you’re doing!”, five alarm fire, all-hands-on-deck search for an exonerating piece of evidence that would have shown that George Benson apologized, showed remorse, or otherwise recanted the obviously racist views that he held and expressed openly in the 1950s and 60s.

Of course, no one was going to ask me of all people–on the record, anyway. I did field the question in a text message from someone on campus, though. Whether or not he was just curious or reporting back to administrators I can’t say, but whatever the case, it’s cool man, you know I love you.

I gave him the best answer I could: “To answer your question, no, in my research I didn’t come across any indication that he later apologized or showed remorse for saying the offensive things he said. Had I come across anything like that, of course I would have included it because that would have made for an even better ending to the story than the one at the conclusion of the author’s note!”

Personally, I don’t believe Dr. George Benson ever apologized, showed remorse, or recanted his racist views for the following reasons:

  1. Had he done so in any sort of formal or public way, written or spoken, I believe the statement would have been in the public record and widely known among the Harding community and the cadre of scholars who have studied his life. As we shall see, if you really mean it, and you want it to stick like glue to your legacy, you make it public. But he apparently didn’t.
  2. I never found any written evidence (and to my knowledge, no one else has either) while carefully poring over either the “official” George S. Benson papers bequeathed to the library by either him or his second wife Marguerite, or the “unofficial” ones which apparently were never intended for public viewing and were instead hidden in a cardboard box  (most likely by Marguerite with the help of others) and stashed away in an unoccupied building near campus.
  3. Had he owned up to his racism and publicly apologized for it, there would have been little need to hide the “integration” file containing racist propraganda which was in the box. An apology would have rendered the materials for the most part moot: “Yes, I did and said those things, but I sincerely apologize.” Poof! Problem gone–or at least greatly mitigated.
  4. I asked Chancellor and former Harding president Cliff Ganus, Jr. that question when he graciously invited me into his office where we talked for two and half hours in April, 2011 and his quick, straightforward and honest response at the time was, “Not that I’m aware of.”

So, you see, when I answered my friend in that text message, I was essentially repeating what Cliff Ganus, Jr. told me. I mean, if that doesn’t earn me a modicum of N Grand Street cred, then honestly I don’t what will.

Every time the Statement of Attitude story has made the social media rounds over the past 8 years, Benson’s defenders always step forward and have their say.

That’s as it should be, and I’m all for it. The worst thing you can do if you’re trying to get history right is to exclude someone’s voice.

This time around, due to the passion and intensity of emotions and actions stirred by the apparent murder of George Floyd, there seems to have been an explosion of cottage industry George S. Benson apologia judging from my very unofficial survey of Harding-related online chatter. Most of it seems to center around the idea that “If you really had known George Benson, you wouldn’t be saying or thinking the things you are about him!”

That’s a bit of a “thin ice” assertion. More on that in a moment.

But first, let’s dispatch the weakest defense I saw, one that was drawn from my original story. It went something like, “Look! He wrote to donors asking for contributions to pay for the education of the first African American students at Harding in 1963, ergo George Benson had a ‘change of heart’ and couldn’t have possibly been racist!”

That is a classic non sequitur. Dr. Benson often mentioned how he contributed money from “my own pockets” to send African American students to traditionally black Churches of Christ colleges like Southwestern Christian College in Terrill, Texas, which might show he had some interest in their education as long as it didn’t happen on his campus. Once forced to desegregate by the forthcoming Civil Rights Act of 1964 in order to avoid the loss of federal loans for Harding students (yes, contrary to popular conception, almost all private Christian colleges and universities receive federal funds in one form or another, not to mention tax exemptions), he did so.

But his efforts to raise money for students, while pragmatic and pro forma, don’t necessarily prove he was truly vested in integration or believed in the abilities and equality of those first three African American students in 1963.

Back to this notion of having to know someone in order to speak authoritatively about them or discern among their words and deeds. I know what some of you are thinking, and the answer is yes, I did read Rayton Sianjina’s piece “The George Benson I knew” in The Christian Chronicle.

I knew Rayton and was on campus when he arrived in the fall of 1980. My first thought was: Man, Rayton looks great and I’m so glad he’s doing well! My second and third thoughts were, I am glad that he spoke up on Dr. Benson’s behalf  (the relationship and bond they shared was special and obvious to all) and, I am glad that he was holding his hand and comforting him as he died.

I have stood bedside at the passing of three important people in my life and barely missed a fourth (my father). You would be hard pressed to pass over more “holy ground.” We all deserve grace, comfort, and a steadfast second by our side as the time comes for us to pace off our final steps and turn to face the great leveler.

But to assert “you have to know someone” to speak authoritatively on their lives or to conduct history would do away with much of what we know as history! A core function of the discipline is to examine the words and deeds of past figures, hold them to the best light available, and discern which among them are commendable and which are not. As it turns out, this is mostly done by those who never knew the subject of their inquiry in real life.

Describing a personal relationship and offering up warm memories and nostalgic wistfulness, while important to take into account, do not necessarily make for accurate or complete history. In fact, you could make the case that someone who has some distance between themselves and the subject of study might be the person best suited to objectively and dispassionately conduct the process.

From my blog post Name Them One by One in 2012 because the thoughts bear repeating:

George S. Benson lived a large life, in the limelight, and thrived on the attention that he received through his writings and speeches. He played a significant role in laying the groundwork for the modern day “Christian Right,” and historians and commentators have been scrutinizing his life for decades, both before and after his death. He relished a challenge, and he was fully aware that his beliefs and practices were controversial. He deserves no special exemption from his own weigh-in with the scales of history–nor do I think he would have expected one. To suggest that he does, is at best, silly sentimentalism, and at worst, cultish adoration.

Did George Benson apologize for his racism? Let me show you what a verifiable public apology looks like:

  1. Consider Alabama Governor George Wallace who took his infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” and with a wave of his hand enabled “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 when recently deceased Congressman John Lewis was among the first to be pummeled by state troopers. Later in life, after an assassination attempt, close brush with death, and paralysis which confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he publicly recanted his cynical use of racial division to win political office and maintain his power and spent the balance of his days supporting the movement he had once sought to crush.
  2. And, too, Lee Atwater, political strategist and candid decoder of the Republican “Southern Strategy,” who spent an entire career engaging in skulduggery and manipulation that would have made Machiavelli blush. When confronted with an inoperable and terminal brain tumor, Atwater sought out every person he could recall offending and stomping on during his rise to the top of his game in the 1980s and publicly apologized, including Governor Michael Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” he had displayed toward him in the 1988 U.S. Presidential campaign and for using racial suspicion and fear as a wedge issue to defeat him. 
  3. On March 6, 1969, 18 Oklahoma Christian College students protesting over civil rights and the Vietnam war were arrested for trespassing in Benson Hall (that’s right, there are were two buildings named after him). A short time later, they were expelled. Fifty years later, Oklahoma Christian University invited the “Oklahoma Christian 18” back to campus for a ceremony of formal apology and reconciliation. Seven of the eighteen returned. Oklahoma Christian president John deSteiguer said, “And to you, as president of Oklahoma Christian University, I apologize for the way you all were treated 50 years ago this morning.”

Did Dr. George Benson apologize for his racism?

When I used to teach church history while I was still in the Churches of Christ, I would address the notion that the “true church of Christ” disappeared sometime around the time of Constantine, somehow survived for centuries underground without a trace, and then suddenly reappeared in early 19th century in frontier America (and no, I’m not talking about the Mormon Church but instead the Restoration Movement and the Churches of Christ . . .) by asking: “What is the difference between a church for which there is not a shred of historical evidence and a church that never existed in the first place?

Similarly, what is the difference between an apology for which there is not a shred of historical evidence and one that was never offered in the first place? Answer: little to nothing.

I believe it is entirely possible to build a great school, even save it from extinction, and still be a racist. It is possible to be a great preacher, or a missionary, or any one of a number of wonderful things and accomplish great good in the world, and still be a racist. It is possible to be a “good man” who would never harm the hair on another human’s head or consider for even a second becoming a cross burning, robe and hood-wearing, lynching, shoot ’em in the back night raider–and, still be a racist.

Good people, listen up: we are all complex, twisted knots of pulsating paradox. And when I say “pulsating” I am referring to a literal pulse. The only “humans” who aren’t are lifeless representations of them: statues, cast in bronze or chiseled from stone.

All “great” men and women have “blind spots,” some of which they never recognize or remedy in their lifetimes.

Did Dr. George Benson apologize for his racism?

Perhaps he did “in his heart.” But he lived for many years after the events that I and others have written about and had plenty of time to set the public record straight.

As far as anyone has been able to determine, he chose not to. His biographer, Dr. L. Edward Hicks, a retired professor of history at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama, perhaps best encapsulated the Benson psyche in the title of his 1994 book: “Sometimes in the Wrong, but Never in Doubt.” 

This is not about pronouncing final judgement on someone’s life and legacy as if all the good they ever accomplished is cancelled because of one or more serious flaws, or worse, condemning them to hell.

I am not in that sordid business; I am just an optometrist, and a universalist one at that.

This is about reckoning with history as it is, not as we wish it to be. This is about finally growing up like George Wallace, Lee Atwater, and the leaders of Oklahoma Christian University and turning what was upside down right-side up again and doing the right thing.