BARTOW COUNTY, Ga. - He walks with such a humble and an unassuming presence, you don't realize you're interacting with a stalwart figure in Georgia history. Judge Robert Benham was the first African American to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court and the first to serve as Chief Justice. He retired in March 2020 after 30 years on Georgia’s highest court.
"I don't have to rule on anything for any reason," said the retired Justice, laughing as he waited to get his Covid19 vaccine Wednesday morning. After a briefing about the possible side effects, the 75-year-old Cartersville native received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine at the Bartow County Health Department.
The retired Justice is a graduate of what was then known as Tuskegee Institute--the historically Black college where the U.S. government secretly observed the horrible effects of untreated syphilis cases on Black men for forty years in Alabama--all under the guise of public health research. None of the participants of the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male" were informed about the treatment options during. Commonly known as "The Tuskegee Experiment," the study was conducted from 1932 until 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease and Prevention.
"A lot of people of color are reluctant because of what happened in Tuskegee," said Justice Benham about his decision to take the Moderna vaccine in the public eye. "It is a part of the healing process of the community and I agreed to do this publicly so other people would know this is all part of being a good citizen," said Benham, who graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law.
Bartow County health officials hope Benham's decision to get immunized will inspire other Black and Brown Georgians-particularly in rural areas--to do the same.
"Research and polling show Black Americans are the most hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine for many understandable reasons, so it’s extremely helpful when well-known and respected community leaders like Judge Benham volunteer to receive the vaccine publicly and encourage vaccine acceptance," said Logan Boss, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Public Health's Northwest Health District.
According to Boss, about 70% of Americans need to take the vaccine for the population to reach herd immunity. White Americans make up about 60% of the U.S. population.
"So, if every white person gets the vaccine, the U.S. would still fall short of herd immunity. Black Americans make up more than 13% of the population, but if up to 60% of African Americans refuse to take the vaccine, as a recent study suggests, it will be difficult to meet the 70% threshold needed for herd immunity," Boss explained.
Judge Benham said he is committed to getting all Americans on board with COVID-19 immunizations.
"I'm going to continue to tell people, I don't care what color they are, what religion they are, this is something that builds up the community whether than tears it down the community," he said.
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