• J. Isaac Noel Benjamin, II

Stand Up and Be Counted


History, not exclusively American history, is infamous for not recording the whole truth. Or, better yet, selective, and opinionated truths. I am a big fan of disclosing history as it unfolds, truthfully and in its entirety. Fast forward to 2021, and we have a white man trying to champion a minimum family-supporting wage ($15 per hour). Back in the day (the 1940s), paying workers $0.25 an hour and working them worse than a mule on Sundays was the norm.


The significance of establishing a national minimum wage is that it currently doesn’t exist and benefits workers everywhere. Some states have higher, and some have lower minimum wage requirements. Economically, the United States has historically allowed the costs of living and wages to languish in no-man’s land.


Legislators introduced a federal minimum wage in 1938 with a goal of $0.25 per hour (equivalent to $4.54 in 2019). By 1950 the minimum wage had risen to $0.75 per hour. The minimum wage had its highest purchasing power in 1968 when it was $1.60 per hour (equivalent to $11.76 in 2019). The California Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA) was a statute passed and enacted in 1959 that barred businesses and labor unions from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on their color, national origin, ancestry, religion, or race. Many Americans know about the law as a poster hanging on the wall where they work. What they do not know is where it originated or its significance. The significance of the law is that it made well-honed discriminatory tactics illegal. The beauty of the law is that it benefits everyone, regardless and race, creed, or religion.


One prime example where history fails to tell the whole truth involves who authored and championed the Fair Employment Practices Act. Judge James Benjamin, Esquire (1920-2007) was the original author of the Legislation. “My only regret is that the final legislation that passed didn’t have the teeth that my initial legislation possessed,” said Benjamin. “However, it was a positive start.” Benjamin graduated from Hasting School of Law. He opened his law office in Bakersfield, Ca. He was a civil rights attorney known as the “people champion.” He took the cases that no other attorney of his era would take. Often, pitting himself against the established hierarchy in what appeared to be a no-win situation. He often got a satisfactory resolution and eventually changed the course of many lives and the law. Benjamin was also President of the Bakersfield chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1954. He worked on many of the current laws on the books that benefit everyone.


You may ask, how I know this when history (smile) has no mention of it. Bedsides being there as a child, this single act would change my life forever. Benjamin was at the White House during the signing of the new law. The powers that be (Klu Klux Klan) opposed this progress, marking Benjamin's entire family for death. We spent the next 15 years actively on the run. He left a busy California law practice and took his family into hiding. He worked as a janitor or whatever work he could get to support his family. We never stayed anyplace exceedingly long. As a child, I thought this was odd, but that was my life. We finally settle in a small town in Connecticut. Settling down was a welcomed change to life on the run because I grew up in a place where it wasn’t necessary to lock the front door. My father's life and career came full circle when he returned to the law. He was eventually appointed as a Judge.

I discovered my father's legacy after being asked to do his eulogy. I can not be prouder to be his son. Many people throughout history deserve to be mentioned when it comes to standing up for their convictions.


Dred Scott (1795-1858) was known for being a slave turned social activist. Scott was abused in slavery by several owners before he tried suing for his freedom in a Missouri Court. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the ruling in Missouri would have given him and his family freedom was overturned by the court. It is believed that this case was part of what motivated the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln.


Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was known as a women’s rights activist and abolitionist. Named Isabella Baumfree initially, changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She was born into slavery and later escaped less than a year before President Lincoln abolished slavery. Truth was the first black person to take a white man to court and win. The result of the case was her son's return, who was illegally sold and sent to Alabama.


W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was known as the co-founder of the NAACP. Du Bois was an influential black rights activist and leader. He was also a notable scholar who studied at Harvard. Du Bois was the very first black individual to earn their doctorate from Harvard University. On February 12, 1909, the NAACP was founded by a coalition of White Americans and African-Americans. This organization's idea was conceived originally by 3 White civil rights activists, Mary White Ovington, William English Walling, and Henry Moskowitz while meeting in New York.


Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was a critical figurehead that led the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Starting in the mid-1950s, Martin Luther King Jr. began to make giant leaps toward creating equal rights for African-Americans. His leadership resulted in the end of legalized segregation around the country. His work also helped to create the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) is known as the first black justice on the Supreme Court. Marshall graduated with a law degree from Howard University. He then represented the NAACP to work for equality for African-Americans. He argued the case of Brown v. Board of Education and won. Marshall served as a Supreme Court justice for 24 years.

Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) was a key American civil rights leader. Wife to Martin Luther King Jr., Scott King worked with her husband throughout his life and played a significant role in many events. She was a part of why the Civil Rights Act passed, as well as taking part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After her husband's assassination, she started the Center for Nonviolent Social Change.


Clarence Thomas (1948-present) is the second African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas is a conservative-leaning Supreme Court member who was appointed in 1991 by George H.W. Bush. He attended Yale Law, and here is where his views shifted from left to right. He is against Roe v. Wade as well as school desegregation.


Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) is considered to be one of the greatest boxers in history. Besides being a world-famous athlete, Ali was a social activist and philanthropist. He won an Olympic gold medal as well as the Golden Gloves. He won every one of his fights throughout the '60s, usually by knockout. Ali is a personal favorite and hero to me. He defined boxing and championed the struggles of African-Americans everywhere.


Barack Obama (1961-present) was the first African-American to become the U.S. president. While studying at Harvard, Obama became the first African-American to be the Harvard Law Review editor. He received his law degree in 1991 and then became a civil rights lawyer. He also became a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He got involved in politics and won his first election to become an Illinois State Senator in 1996. In 2004, Obama, won an Illinois U.S. Senate seat. In 2008, after winning the Democratic nomination, he beat Republican John McCain to become the 44th president of the United States. He won re-election over Mitt Romney in 2012.


I must admit, I never believe there would be an African-American President in my lifetime. Talking about not having a grip. My father told me that there would be a black president in my lifetime. He did not know who or when but stated it would happen. One year after my father passed, the United States elected their first African-American President.




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