In his 2013 Commencement Address at Morehouse College, President Barack Obama called on the graduates to remember what the legendary educator, Benjamin E. Mays, who had been president of Morehouse from 1940 to 1967, said was the role of every graduate who wanted to call themselves a man. Mays said:
It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates — but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private life — men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting (those) ills.
Not only is Obama calling on Mays significant here because of what Mays meant to higher education for blacks in general, but, more specifically, because of what Mays meant to the life and work of Morehouse’s most famous graduate, Martin Luther King Jr. As Lawrence E. Carter notes in his Walking in Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., there was no one who in terms of his philosophy and practice, who had a greater impact on King than Benjamin E. Mays. It is Mays, who King called” his spiritual and intellectual father,” who would deliver the eulogy at King’s funeral. Further Obama, in his commencement address, would recall that King, who enrolled at Morehouse when he was 15 under a program that Mays instituted in order to get the students young before the could be drafted into the war, wasn’t born as the revolutionary he became. In effect, King became the person that he was because of his contact with Morehouse College. Obama states:
Dr. King was just 15 years old when he enrolled here at Morehouse. He was an unknown, undersized, unassuming young freshman who lived at home with his parents. And I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t the coolest kid on campus — for the suits he wore, his classmates called him “Tweed.” But his education at Morehouse helped to forge the intellect, the discipline, the compassion, the soul force that would transform America. It was here that he was introduced to the writings of Gandhi and Thoreau, and the theory of civil disobedience. It was here that professors encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be. And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where “I realized that nobody — was afraid.”
Thinking about the role that Morehouse College and its educators like Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays and Lucius Tobin played in constructing Martin Luther King and in Obama’s ideal of a Morehouse Man, the question for us becomes: are we doing the job that Mays called on us to do and of which King becomes the emblem? Are we teaching these black male students to be unafraid, to be intellectually rigorous, and to make a difference in their communities? Are we, in effect, creating Kings?
It seems that with the challenges that face us as professors, the answer will be not always. In fact, we are regularly plagued with academic dishonesty, apathy, and, what we call in the students, the tendency to rely on “the academic hustle”– the belief that students can get over on their professors by skirting work all semester only to come at the end and negotiate grades. Indeed, it seems that sometimes, teaching character and responsibility, in addition to the rigors of your discipline is more than any one person can handle. However, what Clayborne Carson and archival research will tell you is that King, while at Morehouse, was not a model student. He was an average student who excelled at oratory– or in the use of words, but he rarely made getting the best grades his focus. But there was something that was sparked in him by Mays, who was Morehouse’s first president with a doctorate, to go on to seminary and later get a Ph.D. with an A average. There was something in King’s education at Morehouse that made him willing to fight and die for the rights of others. That something, that is not quantifiable by grades, is what we realized at Morehouse that we need to focus on in order to produce well educated citizens and good human beings. Moreover, studying the words of Martin Luther King, and through him Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman, allows students to gain an understanding of how their own educative process is important.
Therefore, through this research, which I intend to undertake with Yohance Murray in Psychology and Andrea McEachron in Reading and Critical Thinking, I will produce scholarship exploring the pedagogical strategies that I employ using Martin Luther King’s works in order to make sure that our students are not only good writers and critical thinkers but also willing, despite GPA, to think about the impact that they will make on the world around them.
Banks, Adam J. “Martin, Malcolm and a Black Digital Ethos.” Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Carson, Clayborne. “Martin Luther King Jr.: The Crozer Seminary Years.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.16 (Summer, 1997), pp. 123-128.
—————–. “Martin Luther King Jr.: The Morehouse Years.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. 15 (Spring, 1997), pp. 121-125.
Carter, Lawrence Edward, ed. Walking in Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1998.
Jelks, Randal Maurice. Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 2012.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. New York: Fortress Press, 2010. Print.
——————. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991. Print.
Mays, Benjamin E. Born to Rebel. Athens, U of Georgia P, 2003. Print.
Obama, Barack. “2013 Morehouse College Commencement Address.” Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. 19 May 2013.
Thurman, Howard. The Luminous Darkness. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Print.