Saturday, January 19, 2013

Meet Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Civil Rights Movement


On April 9, 1968, Benjamin Elijah Mays had the burdensome honor of delivering a eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr. on the campus of Morehouse College. During that somber moment, the retired college president faced a crowd that stretched as far as the eye could see. They were looking to Mays for words of comfort and inspiration as they tried to comprehend the civil rights leader’s assassination and to summon the courage to continue the struggle.
Over the course of his lengthy career, Mays had eulogized numerous prominent figures within the circles of black colleges and black communities, but King’s eulogy was different in scale. It was to be given before the glaring spotlights and television cameras of the national and international press and would be beamed via satellite to audiences around the world. Before a world audience, he would have to restrain his own angry brokenheartedness. His task was difficult. He had to give tribute, provide comfort, and buoy the struggle for justice.
Mays was also mourning the loss of his spiritual son. King had been his student at Morehouse, which Mays had led as president for 27 years. King had figuratively grown up in the Mayses’ home since the age of 15. For the 13 years of King’s public career, Mays had served as one of his closest confidantes. Lerone Bennett, one of King’s classmates at Morehouse who became senior editor of Ebony magazine, captured Mays’s significance when he called him “the last great school master.” Mays, who defended students’ right to protest and boycott businesses that discriminated, was the most beloved president among those of Atlanta’s historically black colleges, as Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, recalled. According to Edelman, “He inspired and taught and stood by us when we challenged Atlanta’s racial discrimination. Some of his teachings I wrote in my college diary. Others, I internalized, and like many others who heard him frequently, I shared his words with others.”
Mays promoted African Americans’ educational aspirations and helped to define the theological dimensions of the civil rights movement in ways that few other black intellectuals were able to do. Through most of his life, he had worked in the South, led black institutions, and advocated a commitment to social justice among American Protestants. His teachings and example inspired generations of African American students and clergy to develop their intellectual talents and calibrate their ethical compass in order to challenge injustice. But of all that Mays accomplished in his life, he would be remembered primarily as King’s mentor. 
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