Retired Justice Robert Benham Receives Ivan Allen Jr. Prize

The Honorable Robert Benham has spent his life breaking racial barriers as the first African American to hold various positions in the field of law. He was the first African American to establish a law practice in his hometown of Cartersville, Georgia, the first president of the Bartow County Bar Association, the first judge on the Georgia State Court of Appeals, and the first African American to win a statewide election since Reconstruction. His public service career was defined by a commitment to safeguarding civil liberties. For these reasons, the retired justice is the recipient of the 2024 Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage, which honors individuals who have stood up for moral principles at the risk of their careers, livelihoods, and even their lives.

Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera presented the award to Benham during a luncheon at the Biltmore Thursday.

“Like other pioneers know too well, the price for being the first can be incredibly high,” said Cabrera. “Justice Benham admits it wasn’t easy. He faced discrimination, isolation, insults, and threats. But he didn’t stop. Instead, he let his love for the law, his dedication to his community and home state of Georgia, his commitment to country, and his pull to public service drive him, no matter the obstacles.”

Following the award presentation, a symposium featuring a panel of legal experts explored the theme of Leaders in “Progress and Service”: Lives in the Law. Panelists included Gerogia Supreme Court Justice Charles Bethel, Georgia Tech’s General Counsel Danette Joslyn-Gaul, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Harold Melton, and Director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services Candice Broce. Roberta Berry, Georgia Tech associate vice provost for undergraduate education, moderated the panel.

The lawyers shared their views of the law and of lawyers, both as advocates for their clients and as members of the judiciary. They also connected the discussion to the life of Justice Benham.

“Everything about Justice Benham’s career and his professional life has been about giving back,” said Joslyn-Gaul. “He has been honored many times, and 99.9% of the awards are for his selflessness. That kind of professional life and service to others, as a lawyer, is exceptional.”

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.