Benjamin E. Mays

(1894 - 1984)

Eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr.

Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia - April 9, 1968

Benjamin E. Mays

Benjamin E. Mays was a prominent educator, minister and civil rights activist. He said his life's greatest honor was that he was able to serve as a mentor to Martin Luther King, Junior. For nearly three decades (1940-1967), Mays was president of Morehouse College, a respected black school for men in Atlanta. King was a Morehouse graduate and once described Mays as "my spiritual mentor and intellectual father."1 Mays was a guiding influence to other notable Morehouse men, too, including Andrew Young and Julian Bond.

Benjamin Mays was the child of former slaves,. He was born on an isolated South Carolina cotton farm in 1894. His parents were sharecroppers. The darkest years of Jim Crow segregation were just descending on the South; humiliation, mob violence and lynching by whites were common threats for African Americans. Mays learned at an early age the searing lessons of racial inferiority. He had a vivid memory of being stopped with his father by a group of armed, white men on horseback. "I remember starting to cry," Mays wrote. "They cursed my father, drew their guns and made him salute, made him take off his hat and bow down to them several times. Then they rode away. I was not yet five years old, but I have never forgotten them."2

Mays was the youngest of eight children. At the time, school terms for black farm children lasted only four winter months. Mays and his siblings spent the rest of the year working in the fields. Mays was eager for "book learning." Before he even started school, an older sister taught him the alphabet and how to count to 100. At the one-room Brickhouse School, Mays was such a devoted student he sometimes wept when bad weather kept him home.

As a young boy, Mays also discovered his power to move an audience through words. In his autobiography, Born to Rebel, he remembered reciting the Sermon on the Mount at age 9 and getting a standing ovation from his church congregation.

Few black farm children in the South went beyond grade school. Mays's father initially resisted Benjamin's hunger to keep learning. But Mays prevailed, enrolling in the high school attached to all-black South Carolina State College. He graduated as class valedictorian in 1916. Mays attended Bates College in Maine, paying his tuition with scholarships, loans and summer work as a Pullman railroad porter.

Over the next two decades, Mays taught at black colleges, became ordained as a Baptist minister and earned his Ph.D. in ethics and theology from the University of Chicago. In the early 1930s, Mays helped conduct an influential study of African American churches in the United States. In 1934 he became dean of the School of Religion at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1940, Mays was named president of Morehouse College.

Mays stressed academic excellence, leading Morehouse to become one of just four Georgia colleges to qualify for a chapter of the honor society Phi Beta Kappa. Mays fought for the integration of Atlanta's public schools and of all-white colleges, but he insisted on the continuing value of historically black institutions like Morehouse. Frank Prial of The New York Times described Mays as "a voice of moderation in the critical years of the civil rights movement." Prial says Mays "attacked white liberals who paid only lip service to racial equality, but he criticized, too, black extremists such as the Black Panthers."3

Mays' speaking style is credited with influencing Martin Luther King's legendary power of oratory. Mays favored the use of eloquent phrases, quotations, and names of heroic men and women from history. Mays has been described as an intellectual "whose speaking style, though full-voiced and dramatic, did not compromise his fundamentally reasoned interpretation of life and religion."4

Mays retired from Morehouse in 1967 and served on the Atlanta School Board for more than a decade. He died in 1984 at the age of 89. He and his wife, Sadie, had no children. In a newspaper obituary, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young remembered his former teacher as a "strong, tall, brisk-walking intellectual giant."5

Mays gave this eulogy for King at an open-air service on the Morehouse campus. The memorial followed King's funeral service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had served as a co-pastor with his father. The crowd at Morehouse was estimated at more than 150,000 people, including King's widow and children. The event was broadcast live on national radio and television. Mays was 70 years old at the time. He and King had made an agreement, he explained, that if one should die the other would give the homily at his funeral. Thus, the teacher spoke in memory of the student.

At the time of the memorial service, King's assassin was still at large. James Earl Ray was arrested two months later.

Listen to part of the speech

To be honored by being requested to give the eulogy at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is like asking one to eulogize his deceased son, so close and so precious was he to me. Our friendship goes back to his student days here at Morehouse. It is not an easy task. Nevertheless, I accept it with a sad heart and with full knowledge of my inadequacy to do justice to this good man. It was my desire that if I predeceased Dr. King, he would pay tribute to me on my final day. It was his wish that if he predeceased me, I would deliver the homily at his funeral. Fate has decreed that I eulogize him. I wish it might have been otherwise; for, after all I am years three score years and 10, and Martin Luther is dead at 39. How strange.

God called the grandson of a slave on his father's side, and the grandson of a man born during the Civil War on his mother's side, and said to him, "Martin Luther, speak to America about war and peace. Speak to America about social justice and racial discrimination. Speak to America about its obligation to the war. And speak to America about nonviolence."

Let it be thoroughly understood that our deceased brother did not embrace nonviolence out of fear or cowardice. Moral courage was one of his noblest virtues. As Mahatma Gandhi challenged the British Empire without a sword and won, Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the interracial injustice of his country without a gun. And he had faith to believe that he would win the battle for social justice. I make bold to assert that it took more courage for Martin Luther to practice nonviolence than it took his assassin to fire the fatal shot. The assassin is a coward. He committed his dastardly deed and fled. When Martin Luther disobeyed an unjust law, he accepted the consequences of his actions. He never ran away and he never begged for mercy. He returned to Birmingham jail to serve his time.

Perhaps he was more courageous than soldiers who fight and die on the battlefield. There is an element of compulsion in their dying. But when Martin Luther faced death, again and again, and finally embraced it, there was no external pressure. He was acting on an inner urge that drove him on. More courageous than those who advocate violence as a way out, for they carry weapons of destruction for defense. But Martin Luther faced the dogs, the police, jail, heavy criticism, and finally death. And he never carried a gun, not even a pocketknife to defend himself. He had only his faith in a just God to rely on. And his belief that "thrice is he armed who has his quarrels just." The faith that Browning writes about when he says:

One who never turned his back but marched abreast forward,
Never doubted the clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.

Coupled with moral courage was Martin Luther King Jr.'s capacity to love people. Though deeply committed to a program of freedom for Negroes, he had a love and concern for all kinds of people. He drew no distinction between the high and the low. None between the rich and the poor. He believed, especially, that he was sent to champion the cause of the man farthest down. He would probably say, "If death had to come, I am sure there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors." This man was supra-race, supra-nation, supra-denomination, supra-class and supra-culture. He belonged to the world and to mankind. Now he belongs to posterity.

But there is a dichotomy in all this. This man was loved by some and hated by others. If any man knew the meaning of suffering, King knew. House bombed. Living day-by-day for 13 years, under constant threats of death. Maliciously accused of being a communist. Falsely accused of being insincere and seeking limelight for his own glory. Stabbed by a member of his own race. Slugged in a hotel lobby. Jailed 30 times. Occasionally deeply hurt because his friends betrayed him. And, yet, this man had no bitterness in his heart, no rancor in his soul, no revenge in his mind. And he went up and down the length and breadth of this world preaching nonviolence and the redemptive power of love.

He believed in all of his heart, mind and soul that the way to peace and brotherhood is through nonviolence, love and suffering. He was severely criticized for his opposition to the war in Vietnam. It must be said, however, that one could hardly expect a prophet of King's commitment to advocate nonviolence at home, and violence in Vietnam. Nonviolence to King was total commitment, not only in solving the problems of race in the United States, but in solving the problems of the world.

Surely, surely this man was called of God to his work. If Amos and Micah were prophets in the eighth century B.C., Martin Luther King Jr. was a prophet in the 20th century. If Isaiah was called of God to prophesy in his day, Martin Luther was called of God to prophesy in his day. If Hosea was sent to preach love and forgiveness centuries ago, Martin Luther was sent to expound the doctrine of nonviolence and forgiveness in the third quarter of the 20th century. If Jesus was called to preach the Gospel to the poor, Martin Luther was called to bring dignity to the common man. If a prophet is one who interprets in clear and intelligible language the will of God, Martin Luther King Jr. fits that designation. If a prophet is one who does not seek popular causes to espouse, but rather the causes which he thinks are right, Martin Luther qualifies on that score.

No, he was not ahead of his time. No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not somebody else's time. Jesus had to respond to the call of God in the first century A.D., and not in the twentieth century. He had but one life to live. Jesus couldn't wait. How long do you think Jesus would have had to wait for the constituted authorities to accept him? Twenty-five years? A hundred years? A thousand? Never? He died at 33. He couldn't wait.

Paul, Copernicus, Martin Luther the Protestant reformer, Gandhi and Nehru couldn't wait for another time. They had to act in their lifetime. No man is ahead of his time. Abraham, leaving his country in obedience to God's call. Moses leading a rebellious people to the Promised Land. Jesus dying on a cross. Galileo on his knees recanting at 70. Lincoln dying of an assassin's bullet. Woodrow Wilson crusading for a League of Nations. Martin Luther King Jr. fighting for justice for garbage collectors. None of these men were ahead of their time. With them, the time is always ripe to do that which is right [Amen] and that which needs to be done. [That's right]

Too bad, you say, Martin Luther Jr. died so young. I feel that way, too. But, as I have said many times before, it isn't how long one lives, but how well. Jesus died at 33. Joan of Arc at 19. Byron and Burns at 36. Keats and Marlow at 29. And Shelley at 30. Dunbar before 35. John Fitzgerald Kennedy at 46. [Yes] William Rainey Harper at 49. And Martin Luther King Jr. at 39. It isn't how long, but how well.

We all pray that the assassin will be apprehended and brought to justice. But make no mistake, the American people are, in part, responsible for Martin Luther King's death. [That's right] The assassin heard enough condemnation of King and Negroes to feel that he had public support. [Tell it, yes sir] He, he knew that there were millions of people in the United Stated who wished King that was dead. [That's right] He had support. [Yes sir]

The Memphis officials must bear some of the guilt for Martin Luther King's assassination. [Yes sir, applause] The strike should have been settled [Yes sir] several weeks ago. [Yes] The lowest paid men in our society should not have to strike to get a decent wage. A century after Emancipation [Speak sir], and after the enactment of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, [Yes sir] it should not have been necessary for Martin Luther King Jr. to stage marches in Montgomery, Birmingham [Yeah] Selma, and go to jail 30 times, trying to achieve for his people those rights which people of lighter hue get by virtue of the fact that they are born white. [Yes sir]

We, too, are guilty of murder. [Speak sir] It is a time for the American people to repent and make democracy equally, equally applicable to all Americans. What can we do? We and not the assassin, we and not the prejudiced, we and not the apostles of hate, we represent, here today, America at its best. [All right] We have the power to make democracy function so that Martin Luther King and his kind will not have to march.

What can we do? If we love Martin Luther King, and respect him, as this crowd surely testifies, let us see to it that he did not die in vain. [Yes sir, amen applause] Let us see to it that we do not dishonor his name by trying to solve our problems through rioting in the streets. [Amen] Violence was foreign to his nature. [Yes sir, that's right] He warned that continued riots could produce a fascist state. But let us see to it, also, that the conditions that cause riots are promptly removed, as the president of the United States is trying to get us to do. Let black and white alike search their hearts. And if there be any prejudice in our hearts against any racial or ethnic group, let us exterminate it, and let us pray, as Martin Luther would pray if he could, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." [Amen, preach it]

If we do this, Martin Luther King Jr. will have died a redemptive death for which all mankind will benefit. Morehouse will never be the same, because Martin Luther came by here. And the nation and the world will be indebted to him for centuries to come. It is natural therefore, that we here at Morehouse, and Dr. Gloster, would want to memorialize him to serve as an inspiration to all students who study in this center. I close by saying to you what Martin Luther King Jr. believed. If physical death was the price he had to pay to rid America of prejudice and injustice, nothing could be more redemptive. And, to paraphrase the words of the immortal John Fitzgerald Kennedy, permit me to say that Martin Luther King Jr.'s unfinished work on earth must truly be our own. [Amen, applause]

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