MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Hundreds of people shuffled into the Myrtle Beach Convention Center Friday morning to memorialize civil rights leader Bennie Swans Jr., who died last week. Those close to him celebrated his life with a number of gospel songs, memories that sometimes caused laughs and calls to continue the fight for social change.
Swans’ casket was draped in the American flag. It sat in front of a stage with a large poster of him and a slideshow of pictures playing throughout the service.
The socially-distanced chairs were covered in black cloth and reserved for relatives and close friends. Many were wearing masks with Swans’ name and the words “Do Something” printed on them, a call to action that Swans lived by.
Marcella Swans, Bennie’s wife of 30 years, quickly learned the passion and impact he had on others.
“He just connected with the city and community,” Marcella Swans said. “He was just always trying to find a way to help people better themselves and make the system understand minorities’ plight, gangs’ plight.”
Other members of the community filled the convention center seats and listened to prayers, scripture readings and finally a spirited eulogy from Pastor Joe Washington of Hope Church.
“Bennie had a marathon mindset and now he’s passed the mantle on to you all, so what are you going to do with it?” he asked the crowd, referencing Swans’ fiery passion for helping the community.
The 70-year-old died in his Myrtle Beach home from heart complications but was an activist until the end. Swans had been planning the 2021 Freedom Rally despite a slew of illnesses that plagued his body in his final weeks.
Years ago he led the charge in bringing the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Rally Weekend to Myrtle Beach. He was responsible for making the city recognize the day as a holiday.
Swans started his activism in Philadelphia where he was known for his work as a member of a national gang task force, community organizer and civil rights activist.
That’s how Timothy McCray first heard about Swans. The New York native wouldn’t meet Swans until they both lived in Horry County but the connection was strong.
“He was my hero,” McCray said. “He was my leader. He was a great mentor to me, he loved the community that we serve here in Myrtle Beach. He definitely addressed a lot of issues that we face in our community and tried to make an impact here. We just celebrate his life and thank him for the time that we had.”
The pair spent almost two decades working on community projects like gun buy backs and Mothers Against Violence.
“He was so involved in gathering those mothers together and letting them share their stories to help others,” he said. “His heart was for the community and for the betterment of the human race.”
McCray is one of many people who will help carry on Swans’ legacy, part of which included working with police.
Swans served his country in many ways. Before his time impacting communities—including a stint as Horry County Democratic Party chair from 2016-18 — he served in the Army in the Vietnam War. He was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart. He also co-founded Grand Strand Community Law Enforcement Appreciation Committee to unify police officers with the community.
Horry County Chief Deputy Tom Fox worked with Swans for 15 years.
The pair worked together on reentry programs and juvenile diversion programs while Fox was Director of Detention at J Reuben Long Detention Center. Later they created a program called Connecting Cops, Kids and Community, aimed at exposing at-risk youth to police in a non-confrontational way, Fox said.
“Many disadvantaged children only come in contact with police officers when a police officer responds to a call at their house or they get in some sort of trouble,” he said. “So this gave us an opportunity to sit down and talk to them and connect with them.”
Fox says Swans’ experience in Pennsylvania helped him create unity in Horry County.
“Bennie never made an enemy,” he said. “Everyone was his friend. He used his communication skills and his Christian values to resolve a lot of conflicts.”
Horry County Councilman Orton Bellamy also spoke at the memorial, where he presented the Swans family with a plaque containing Swans’ military awards. Two Bronze Stars, three Silver stars, and a Purple Heart.
“In the military we use a lot of acronyms. Benny has been given his final PCS orders,” Bellamy, who is also an Army veteran said, referencing a permanent change of station order. “He has been reassigned in Heaven with God.”