Owners of the Unfinished Work
On August 1, 1894, two years before the Plessy v. Ferguson court case ruled segregation constitutional, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays was born to former slaves near Epworth and Ninety-Six, South Carolina. He was the youngest of eight children and whom at an early age determined to defy the odds that were against him as a black male living in Jim Crow south. Although the education Mays received in his first years was sporadic, he would eventually stand in history as one of the most prominent scholars, teachers, clergymen, writers, and activists of his time. Since his beginnings, he would waste no time.
Throughout his years of study, Mays worked multiple handy jobs to continue his education. After receiving at most, four months of schooling per year for several years, he went on to graduate with his high school diploma at age twenty-one. After applying to attend school in the north where he desired to study in integrated settings, he did not get in. Therefore, Mays first enrolled at Virginia Union University. One year later, he joined at Bates College and studied until his graduation. It is after Mays’ undergraduate studies that he began to serve as pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA while simultaneously teaching math, psychology, and religion at Morehouse College. During these times, Dr. Mays was empowered by the lives of those in his congregation, classroom and in-depth research of the African American church.
After serving alongside his wife Sadie in various capacities and southern states with the Urban League, National YMCA, and Rockefeller Institute of Social and Religious Research he was inspired to return to school to complete his doctoral degree from the University of Chicago School of Religion. While completing his doctorate, Dr. Mays became the first dean of the School of Religion at Howard University. This role as dean at the university gave Mays the opportunity to travel abroad, his notable trip to India included a visit with Mahatma Gandhi. At the time, Mays was familiar with nonviolent protesting. However, Gandhi expanded his understanding of considerable passive resistance. A philosophy that one of his great mentees would champion in the American Civil Rights Movement. Soon after his stint at Howard, he would move on to become the sixth president of Morehouse College for twenty-seven years.
At Morehouse like many other places, Dr. Mays left his mark. He led Tuesday morning chapel gatherings where he actively encouraged the men attending the institution. At this same institution, he mentored and spiritually advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was among the young men who garnered the wisdom of Dr. Mays. He influenced the life and service of King and many other civil rights leaders. Mays and King developed such a deeply rooted relationship that they promised each other, whomever of the two were to outlive the other, he would eulogize the other at his funeral. Fate had it that Mays would be the eulogist. In his eulogy to King he delivered:
“He was not ahead of his time. No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else’s time. Jesus had to respond to the call of God in the first century A.D., and not in the 20th century. He had but one life to live. He couldn’t wait.”
“With them the time was always ripe to do that which was right and that which needed to be done. Too bad, you say, that Martin Luther King 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. It’s what one accomplishes for mankind that matters.”
“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.”
Today, the rest of this month, and onward as we honor and reflect on those who committed their lives for the well-being of his neighbor, the words of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays are before us:
“It isn’t how long one lives, but how well.”
Day by day as many of us are offered to give our lives to trivial matters and fleeting fame, the question remains, for whom and what will we live for? Will it be to build our kingdom or for a greater one to come. Though the path to justice may be filled with many bumps and great suffering, we must keep on owning the unfinished work before us. We are not ahead of our time.As we continue ahead in our respective roles as teachers, public servicemen and women, ministers or whatever that position may be, let us not proceed with just any standard. May the words of Dr. Mays charge us:
“Seek to serve your state, not as a Negro but as a man. Aspire to be great– not among Negroes, but among men! God knows I want to be a great teacher. I want no racial adjective modifying it. I want to preach the gospel of peace, good will, justice, and brotherhood– not to Negroes and for Negroes, but to men and for men.”
“Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no man living and no man dead and no man yet to be born could do it any better.”
-Michael Peterson, MTR Class of 2020