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Remembering Dr. May’s Legacy

Remembering Dr. Benjamin E. Mays’s Legacy

“It started here in a log cabin and a cottonpatch. If it hadn’t been for Benjamin Mays, thereprobably wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King.” So said Ambassador Andrew Young as hespoke at the dedication of the Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site in Greenwood,South Carolina on April 26, 2011. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, who was born in 1894 to formerslaves, was an adviser to Presidents, mentor of mentors like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., laudedpreacher and scholar, advocate for social justice, and the president of Morehouse College from1940 to 1967. He was a remarkable man and role model for thousands of students who enteredthe doors of Morehouse, Spelman College, Atlanta University, Clark and Morris BrownColleges, and the Interdenominational Theological Seminary, the schools that constituted thebroader Atlanta University Center of Black higher education.Ramrod straight of posture, unwaveringly principled and caring, keenly intelligent and elegant inspeech, Dr. Mays was one of the most important people to me during my college years at Spelman. Throughout my life he inspired me with a passion for excellence and service. TheMays Historical Site, which includes a museum, a 19th century one-room Black schoolhouse,and the simple log cabin that was Dr. Mays’s birthplace and childhood home, is a long overduerecognition of him by his native state, South Carolina.

One of Dr. Mays’s earliest childhood memories was of the armed White mob that came to hishome during an 1898 riot and forced his father to bow before them at gunpoint. Eight otherBlack citizens, including Dr. Mays’s cousin, were murdered. Dr. Mays understood early on thatthe way to escape the violence, discrimination, and poverty of his rural Southern communitywould be through education. After graduating as valedictorian from the high school departmentof South Carolina State College at age 22, he went on to graduate with honors from BatesCollege in Maine. He went on to Atlanta, where he pastored Shiloh Baptist Church and wasrecruited to serve as a math instructor and debate coach at Morehouse. After returning to schoolto earn a Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Chicago, Dr. Mays was appointed dean of theSchool of Religion at Howard University in 1934, and served there until assuming the presidencyof Morehouse.

I first met Dr. Mays in 1953 when I was thirteen years old and he came to stay at my house.Daddy had invited him to speak at our church, and because there were no hotels where Blackvisitors could stay in my Southern town, the pastor and parishioners always provided hospitalityto strangers great and humble. Later, I heard and saw Dr. Mays and his beautiful wife Sadie oftenat Spelman or on Morehouse’s campus. Students were regularly invited to their house, and I wasone of eight very lucky Spelman students privileged to sing with eight Morehouse students atMorehouse’s 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning chapel services in Sale Hall, where I heard Dr. Maysand other speakers from Morehouse and the outside world every week. Students lovinglyimitated Dr. Mays’s words and mannerisms and hungrily internalized his unerring belief that wewere God’s instruments for transforming the world.

Of the six college presidents in the Atlanta University academic complex, Dr. Mays was the onewho we looked up to most. He inspired and taught us and stood by us when we challengedAtlanta’s racial discrimination. Some of his teachings I wrote in my college diary. Others Iinternalized and, like many others who heard him frequently, I shared his words with others. Iespecially remember his oft-repeated “God’s Minute” from an anonymous sage:

I have just one minute
Only sixty seconds in it,
Forced upon me - can’t refuse it
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute -
But eternity is in it.

Dr. Mays also warned “the tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in ourcomplacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living aboveour ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.” When Morehouse College bade Dr.King farewell after his assassination at a service on the grassy rectangle connecting AtlantaUniversity with Morehouse, where I stood with thousands of others who had marched behind hissimple mule-driven cortege, Dr. Mays movingly saluted his former student, fellow freedomfighter, and servant of God with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “See how the masses of menworry themselves into nameless graves, while here and there a great unselfish soul forgetshimself into immortality.”

How many high school and college students today are urged to follow intrinsic values rather thanextrinsic success? Dr. Mays was a great unselfish soul who through the countless young peoplehe inspired lives on. I amgrateful a new generation will now be able to visit his childhood homeand learn about Dr. Benjamin E. Mays’s life and legacy.

Marian Wright Edelmanis an activist for children's rights, and the founder and presidentemerita of the Children's Defense Fund(CDF).

By Marian Wright Edelman