Who Was Benjamin Van Clark? - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Who Was Benjamin Van Clark?

Photo by Frederick C. Baldwin, courtesy of Telfair Museums Photo by Frederick C. Baldwin, courtesy of Telfair Museums
Photo by Frederick C. Baldwin, courtesy of Telfair Museums Photo by Frederick C. Baldwin, courtesy of Telfair Museums

He's considered an unsung hero of Savannah's Civil Rights Movement. Though small in stature, those who knew Benjamin Van Clark say he was a giant in his commitment to the struggle for equality.

His actions earned him the nickname, "The Little General."  Former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson remembers him as a powerhouse among his peers.

"All during that time while he was in high school, he was involved in the marches and sit-ins and got arrested several times here in Savannah," Johnson says.

Clark was a student at Sol. C. Johnson when he got involved in the movement. Alflorence Cheatham, then Principal wanted to organize an ROTC Unit at the school.

"At that time, there were no ROTC programs for blacks and the Board of Education denied his request to establish one there... So, he went ahead and used his own funds to get something going and as a result of his efforts, he was fired."

Clark then organized students to protest at the Board. That would be the beginning of his crusade.

"We talk about a calling and I believe that this was Ben's calling. For a young man 16, 17, 18 years old to be as passionate. He had a sense of justice and injustice and he saw in my opinion what happened to his principal who the students just revered as wrong and he felt compelled to do something about it and that just catapulted him into the civil rights movement."

It wasn't long before Clark joined the Chatham County Crusade for Voters under the leadership of civil rights activist Hosea Williams. When Williams was arrested and jailed for more than a month, it was Clark who took the helm.

"He did a yeoman's job leading that struggle in 1963 when he was in high school."

June 21, 1963, marked the 18th straight day of demonstrations in Savannah as hundreds marched to force the desegregation of downtown businesses. Williams and Clark led the crowd to City Hall where they prayed for equality.
The marches continued until August and by the fall of 1963, the walls of segregation started coming down.

Johnson himself made history by becoming the first African American to integrate Armstrong State College.

"As a result of that, pressure was placed on the power structure in Savannah to desegregate the public accommodations and later that year, that year an agreement was made between the NAACP and the Crusade for Voters to desegregate the lunch counters, theaters, and other public accommodations downtown and then the demonstrations ceased."

Clark would follow Williams to Atlanta to work with the SCLC. They moved all over the south to break down Jim Crow laws and press for voter registration. That involvement ended in 1964 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.    

After several years in the field, Clark returned to Savannah. Johnson says it was obvious the movement had take its toll.

"We just knew that from the beatings and stress and fear of death it had affected Ben."

Johnson says Clark died a shell of who he once was- never earning the recognition many felt he deserved.

"It is a belief in the African American tradition that as long as you speak a person's name, they will always be with you."

So Johnson continues to tell the story of Benjamin Van Clark and others like him- courageous leaders who sacrificed everything for freedom.

"He ought to be lifted up as an example of what young people can do when they believe in a cause and when they're determined and persistent."

In 1982, Live Oak Park was renamed in honor of Savannah Civil Rights youth leader Benjamin Van Clark. The entire community surrounding the park has since adopted his name. The Benjamin Van Clark Neighborhood is bordered by Wheaton Street, Bee Road, Anderson and Harmon.

Dr. Johnson is currently working on a book chronicling his journey from the civil rights movement to his time in office as Savannah's mayor.
He expects to release it sometime this summer.

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