An online petition to rename Harding University’s George S. Benson Auditorium has gathered nearly 11,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. Benson was president at the Church of Christ-affiliated university in Searcy from 1936 until 1965. He was an arch conservative, an anti-communist crusader and an avowed segregationist. The auditorium is a place of special importance on Harding’s campus as the site of mandatory weekday chapel meetings.
The petition proposes that the chapel be renamed in the memory of Harding alumnus Botham Jean, who was fatally shot in his Dallas apartment in 2018 by an off-duty Dallas Police Department patrol officer. Jean was black, a native of Saint Lucia. The officer, Amber Guyer, was white. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2019.
From the petition:
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.
In making the case for the name change, the petition relies heavily on a 2012 Arkansas Times cover story on Benson and the civil rights era at Harding. It was written by Michael D. Brown, a freelance writer and optometrist in Huntsville, Ala., who is also a Harding alumnus.
From that article:
Benson [in a 1958 chapel speech at Harding] asserted that blacks in America “have more cars than people in Russia” and “more money than people in Canada.” “Equal educational opportunities” existed for all and did not require racial mixing, according to Benson. “The Little Rock Nine,” he said, “left a far better building and their own teachers to go to Central.”
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!”
In addition to hosting chapel meetings, Benson Auditorium is also where the university holds its distinguished lecture series, which historically has featured conservatives, including Steve Forbes, former U.S. Attorney Alberto Gonzalez, Ben Carson and Laura Bush. The two speakers next slated to appear don’t fit that mold and deal directly with race. Jerry Mitchell, scheduled to visit campus Sept. 8, is a renowned Mississippi journalist who has made a career of writing about racial violence and civil rights. Benjamin Watson, a former NFL player scheduled to speak Nov. 10, is the author of a book called “Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race.”
More recommended reading related to Benson and Harding’s history: A 2007 dissertation by UA Little Rock Professor Barclay Key: “Race and Restoration: Churches of Christ and the African American Freedom Struggle.” UPDATE: Buy Key’s new book with a similar title from LSU Press. It’s available in ebook form, too.
There’s lots of Twitter chatter directed at Harding’s official account related to the petition, racism and racial justice.
I’ve asked Harding and members of the Harding black student association for comment and will update if they get back to me.