George S. Benson was a vocal racist and supporter of segregation. In particular, he fought to keep the Harding community segregated. Honoring his legacy by keeping his name on the George S. Benson Auditorium is implicitly honoring his legacy of racism and segregation.
In 2012, the Arkansas Times published an article that detailed George Benson's role in maintaining the segregation of the Harding community (See also the author's note about the story). Some of the salient facts from this article are quoted below:
"On Jan. 7, 1956, in a chapel speech titled 'Harding College and the Colored Problem,' [George S. Benson] put to rest any notion that Harding would soon integrate, chiding the students’ youthful idealism and calling on them to trust 'the judgment of elderly people of experience' such as the Harding Board of Trustees. According to his prepared remarks, Benson explained that integration 'now' was not the 'voice of wisdom,' and he argued that immediate implementation would cause Harding to 'lose 50 or more whites' and 'much standing in the community — community not yet ready.' The Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education), Benson said, was 'a great shock to much of the South' and 'time is required to absorb it.'"
Harding Students produced the following Statement of Attitude: 'a number of members of the Harding College community are deeply concerned about the problem of racial discrimination. Believing that it is wrong for Christians to make among people distinctions which God has not made, they sincerely desire that Harding College make clear to the world that she believes in the principles of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. To that end, the undersigned individuals wish to state that they are ready to accept as members of the Harding community all academically and morally qualified applicants, without regard to arbitrary distinctions such as color or social level; that they will treat such individuals with the consideration and dignity appropriate to human beings created in the image of God; and that they will at all times face quietly, calmly, patiently, and sympathetically any social pressures intensified by this action.'
"The students were careful to add that the “Statement of Attitude” was not “an attempt to precipitate action,” but instead “an expression of internal readiness.” They walked a fine line, daring to challenge Benson and the Board of Trustees while continuing to show respect to their elders."
- "On Nov. 14, 1957, the Bison published an above-the-fold story with a bold headline that read: 'Results of Recent Poll On Racial Integration Show Student Attitudes.' A total of 946 out of 1276 students, faculty and staff — nearly 75 percent of the campus — had signed the “Statement of Attitude,” including 49 faculty members, 42 staff members, and 1 administrator, Dean of Students James Atkinson."
"In January 1958, Benson gave a chapel speech titled “Harding College and the Negro Question.” According to his prepared notes, Benson scolded Bill Floyd and the student association for their circulation of the “Statement of Attitude.” He complained that proper procedure had not been followed (“A petition normally is a last resort, not a first step!”) and that he had considered offering an open chapel forum to Bill Floyd in which both sides could discuss the issue.
According to Floyd, Benson never extended such an offer. He said, 'Others tried to warn us off, but he never offered a forum. A petition was much easier to control. Had he opened up the subject to debate, we would have done so gladly. But he didn’t for fear of the press and the NAACP showing up on campus for such an event. He would have never risked that.'
Benson said that few blacks desired to attend Harding and that those who had applied had received financial assistance from his own pocket to attend all-black schools in Little Rock and Texas."
"Citing Washington, D.C., as an example, Benson warned that integration would bring 'increased destruction to property, increased gonorrhea and syphilis, and increased pregnancies.' He also railed against 'mixed marriages' which would lead to 'more broken homes' and an 'increase in crime.'"
Benson concluded the speech with a line that Harding’s faculty and students had heard him say before but never with so much emphasis: 'The blackbirds and bluebirds, the blue jays and mockingbirds, they don’t mix and mingle together, young people!'"
"By the fall of 1963, however, the forthcoming Civil Rights Act changed the financial calculus of segregation. When the bill passed, Harding would be required to desegregate to continue receiving federal funds. In a surprise chapel announcement that Fall, Benson said that, effective immediately, three black male students would be admitted.
Benson’s announcement was met with a standing ovation. An editorial cartoon from the Sept. 26, 1963, Bison shows a beleaguered figure, presumably Benson, standing behind the podium, hands raised as if attempting to stem the tide of history. The caption read: 'Please, there’s no need of a standing ovation for the announcements!'"
George S. Benson resisted the clear teachings of the Bible and the overwhelming consensus of the Harding community in order to keep Harding segregated as long as possible. Not only was he more concerned about the white students who would leave Harding upon integration than justice, but he was also worried about how integration would affect Harding's reputation. He openly used racist language in his public defenses of segregation, arguing that there was an inherent connection between African-Americans and crime, sexually transmitted deceases, and poverty.
George Benson finally changed his stance on segregation but not because of his Christian beliefs, student opinion, political pressure, or good-will. His position only changed because of money. He was willing to keep Harding segregated at all costs, except when it prevented Harding from receiving federal government handouts.
Those who sign this petition propose that the George S. Benson Auditorium be renamed the Botham S. Jean Auditorium to honor the life of a man who was committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ in both word and deed, who truly loved all of his neighbors, and who praised God instead of promoted racism in Harding chapel services.
The fact that racism played such an important role in the life of George S. Benson and in the death of Botham Jean is our motivation to propose this name change.