Columbia's first and current African American mayor, Steve Benjamin, called for the eradication of drugs, gang violence and the improvement of educational opportunities during Fort Jackson's 2019 African American/Black History Month Luncheon at the NCO Club Feb. 14.

Benjamin was the guest speaker at the event.

With a theme of black migrations, the focus centered on how accomplishments of African Americans have helped develop the United States and the world at large.

Benjamin, a native of Queens, New York and a University of South Carolina graduate, brought the theme to light and commented on the work that still needs to be done.

"We have major challenges that we're facing all across this country that are particularly pervasive in the African American community," he said.

He mentioned health disparities and a high prevalence of HIV, AIDS, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

"We are indeed in a fight for the souls of our children, and we've got to redouble our efforts and make sure we preserve a world for them," Benjamin said.

Eradicating drugs and gang violence and improving the educational system is key, he added.
"Every generation must do better than the last generation," but kids of today don't all have the chance to succeed, he said.

Key to a brighter future is ensuring the opportunity for every person to achieve economic success, Benjamin added. "If you give someone a fair shot to make a living, it's amazing how many other issues take care of themselves."

He spoke on the world-changing differences seemingly normal people have made to improve the country.

"God called them," Benjamin said, and they answered, "'Here I am; send me.'"

He said he hoped the audience would do the same, given the chance.

"We may not see each of your names in light," but it is servant leadership that makes this country the "wonderful land of milk and honey," he said.

Sarah Mae Flemming, a woman who is little known, but played a key role in the desegregation of buses in South Carolina, epitomizes servant leadership, he said.

Flemming, a native of Eastover, South Carolina, sat in the whites-only section of a Columbia bus in 1954, at the age of 20.

"She doesn't see it coming: the outrage and humiliation," Benjamin said.

The bus driver confronted Flemming and reportedly hit her as she exited the bus.

The lawsuit she filed against the bus company laid the groundwork for other ligitation including that of Rosa Parks.

"(Flemming's) actions were echoed across our nation," Benjamin said. "She wasn't looking for a fight, she wasn't looking for a cause … She wasn't looking for history; history found her."

History found Benjamin, too, when he was elected as the first African American mayor in the city's history in April 2010.

Voter turnout for that year's mayoral election was record-setting.

In 2013, Benjamin was reelected to office by a 30 percent margin.

"That is a landslide; that is a beat down … however you want to put it," said Brig. Gen. Milford
H. "Beags" Beagle Jr., Fort Jackson commander, when he introduced Benjamin at the luncheon. "He has a list of accolades that are endless … You only have to spend a few minutes with him to understand why."

Beagle called him a "proven visionary" and a friend and advocate of Fort Jackson.

Benjamin has been active in law and politics for years.

He was appointed as director of the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services at the age of 29, after attending the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Along with his role as mayor, Benjamin is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, chairman for Municipal Bonds for America, and teaches a class at the UofSC.