Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage Recognizes Georgia Judicial Pioneer

Retired Justice Robert Benham to receive the Institute's premier award.
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On Thursday, Feb. 8, Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage will be presented to Retired Justice Robert Benham. The annual award honors individuals who have stood up for moral principles at the risk of their careers, livelihoods, and even their lives.

A lifelong resident of Georgia, Benham was appointed to the Supreme Court of Georgia by Gov. Joe Frank Harris in December 1989. He was the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court of Georgia in its more than 140 years. In 1990, he won statewide election to a full term on the Supreme Court. He served as chief justice from 1995 to 2001 and remained on the court until his retirement in 2020.

"Justice Benham's long career of public service was defined by a commitment to safeguarding civil liberties and an unflinching belief in serving communities and doing the right thing," said Ángel Cabrera, president of Georgia Tech. "He was a key figure in the integration of his hometown and a breaker of barriers. Achieving those ‘firsts’ meant he was shunned, ostracized, and threatened, but he still showed great social courage and leadership, even when the risks were high."

Justice Benham earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Tuskegee University in 1967 and attended Harvard University. In 1970, he obtained a J.D. from the University of Georgia’s Lumpkin School of Law and a Master of Laws degree from the University of Virginia in 1989.  

After law school, he served in the U.S. Army Reserve, attaining the rank of captain. He then served briefly as a trial attorney for Atlanta Legal Aid Society. He later returned to his hometown of Cartersville, where he started a private law practice, served as special assistant attorney general, and served two terms as president of the Bartow County Bar Association. Justice Benham was the first African American to establish a law practice in Bartow County.

The Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage is named for former Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., a graduate of Georgia Tech, who at great personal and political risk was the only southern white elected official to testify before Congress in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For more on the prize and its previous recipients, visit ivanallenprize.gatech.edu.