Benjamin Elijah Mays 1894-1984
From Southern Changes, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1984
As I have said so often, I am one of Bennie Mays' "boys." I have been one of his "boys" since I was a kid in the rolling countryside and on the red hills of Griffin, Georgia, and I will be one of his "boys" until I die.
Dr. Mays had a love affair with the basic and perennial values of the human enterprise: excellence, decency, justice, non-violence, love, good will, reason, nobility, concern for others, compassion for human suffering, respect for the dignity and worth of every man, woman, and child, sensitivity to human needs, a heightened sense of personal and social responsibility, and the love of God. He was so many things: prophet, scholar, educator, apostle of social justice, champion of human excellence, author, humanist, humanitarian, teacher, voice of the voiceless, a chief founder of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Revolution, a major architect of the New South, inspirer, motivator, and transformer of youth, and peerless spokesman of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.
Dr. Mays was a hard taskmaster. I sometimes thought that it was easier to please God than Dr. Mays. His standards for himself and others were inordinately high, lofty, and demanding. Truly, they could never be fully satisfied--thank God. He kept us stretching, striving, aspiring, and always looking up.
I have told him that the title of one of his books, Lord, the People Have Driven Me On, was a great misnomer. The Lord knows that Bennie Mays drove the people on. And I told him that Bennie Mays drove the good Lord on. He was always inexhaustible, creatively restless, irrepressible, tireless, always dreaming of new worlds to conquer, new mountains to climb, new rivers to cross, new tasks to tackle, new challenges to meet. Life, for him, could never be finished. No wonder that, in spite of the spate of books he wrote, he was working on three more when he died. And he always thought that his best book, on the Brown public school desegregation case of 1954, was yet to be written. He lived in the world of anticipation, and not simply in the world of memory. He lived in the creative world of hope. He died dreaming. He died aspiring to greater things and loftier heights. What a magnificent way to die! Dr. Mays was a daring, incurable, and incredible dreamer. Dreams were a central part of his longevity, productivity, meaning, zest, and inspiration.
Dr. Mays was born free. He lived free. He died free. Always courageous, he was a prophet to the core of his being--always emphasizing the creative tension between the "is" and the "ought," promise and fulfillment, the Kingdom of man and the Kingdom of God. He never forgot the prophetic responsibility to speak "truth to power." He was always his own man, always a man of great moral courage, rebellion, and affirmation. Fierce independence and individualism, nobility, and supreme integrity were hallmarks of his great life. "Never sell you soul" was a central theme and imperative of his teachings and life. His soul was never for sale to anybody at anytime for any price. In a world of constant pressures and counter-pressures, he had supreme integrity, character, and incorruptibility.
Bennie Mays taught us how to live. He also taught us how to die. Miss Cordeila Blount, his devoted niece, said to me the day of his death: "Bernie was so remarkable. He was remarkable in life. He was remarkable in the twilight of life and in death." Yes, our beloved Dr. Mays lived with grace and dignity, and died with grace and dignity.
Even as he confronted the frailties of age and death, Buck Bennie was mighty tough. He made a game of wrestling with, and defying death. He was utterly defiant and outrageously uncooperative. More than once, he escaped the cold clutches of death, with the clarion call "I ain't got time' to die." "I'm too busy serving my master." Until the final encounter, he won every battle with death. This was so symbolic of the man. Dr. Mays was always a great fighter--whatever or whomever the foe.
Mrs. Sally Warner, his superb confidante, great friend, and assistant, told him, after he had been in intensive care at the hospital a few months ago, that she had called several people. Alert and sharp as always, he got the message. As only Bennie Mays would and could say, he commented: "I fooled you, didn't I?" He fooled all of us so many times.
"The time and place of a man's life on earth are the time and place of his body," said Howard Thurman, "but the meaning and significance of his life are as vast and as far-reaching as his gifts, his times, and the passionate commitment of all his powers can make it."
Dr. Mays touched, enriched, inspired, educated, motivated, transformed so many lives--black and white, rich and poor, male and female, learned and untutored, Gentile and Jew, Protestant and Catholic, Northerner and Southerner, religionist and secularist. So many owe him so much.
Dr. Mays lived a long life. But longevity has no intrinsic merit. As Dr. Mays reminded us so often, it is not how long but how well. It is not the quantity of years but the quality of service that counts. Dr. Mays gave to life the highest and the best we can give to life: the gift of self. He followed his own advice that "Lives are saved by giving them away." "The truly great men of history are not those who hoard and keep," said Dr. Mays, "but those who dedicate their lives to some great cause and who give themselves to the benefit of the people." Again, "the only way to save our lives is to give ourselves to others in some worthwhile service. Giving is the inherent in living."
Dr. Mays was one of the world's greatest educators and philosophers of education because he applied the Christian conception of human vocation and service to the whole educational process.
With ringing eloquence and prophetic power, Bennie Mays insisted that
The search for happiness is an unworthy
goal. you go out looking for happiness, you don't know what to look
for or where to look. you marry looking for happiness, it is an
unworthy aim. People should marry because they love each other; not
for happiness, but for better, for worse, for richer, for
Not important that people be happy. Was
Moses happy? .... Was Socrates happy? .... Was Jesus happy? .... Was
Mahatma Gandhi happy? ....
We argue still further, what right have we to be happy? They tell me half of the people of the earth are starving Why should we have bread enough and to spare while our brother starves? To be personal, who am I? I am no better than my starving brother. Who am I to be happy? But for the grace of God. I, too, might be starving Who am I to ride around in Pullman cars and jets while others starve?
Where may happiness be
If happiness is to be found, it will be found in noble endeavor, endeavor that gives satisfaction and is beneficial to mankind. It will be found in struggling, in toiling, and in accomplishing something worthwhile. Happiness, if it is to be found, will be found in a job well done ....
If happiness is to be found, it will be found in pursuing and accomplishing something worth" while, and the quest must be continuous--no complacency and no satisfaction.
If happiness is to be found, it will be
found in noble living A man lives nobly when he has an honest
conscience, when he can say: The community is better off because I
gave my best to it. I did not exploit people for my personal gain
. . .
If happiness is to be found, it will be found when we live more for others than we do for ourselves.Yes, Bennie Mays represents the Kingdom not of this world. The Kingdom not of this world is the Kingdom of God. It is the Kingdom of truth, love, righteousness, human service, social and racial justice and caring--beyond race, color, creed, sex, ethnicity, culture and other boundaries of estrangement.
What greater legacy can a person leave to his loved ones, friends, disciples and fellow human beings than the precious, unique and enduring legacy of Bennie Mays?
You and I must make his vision, legacy and work our own. Because of the death of Bennie Mays, you and I, all of us, must do a little more to promote the cause of excellence, decency, justice, the higher possibilities of history and culture and the Beloved Community of all of God's children. To mind come the words of Micah: "He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
So, our very special Dr. Mays, our beloved Bennie Mays, our "Buck Bennie," who has meant so much to so many, we mournfully and yet with joy, say: Hail, thanks, love and farewell.
At the time of this writing, Samuel DuBois Cook was President of Dillard University and a member of the executive committee of the Southern Regional Council. Dr. Cook's remarks are excerpted from his eulogy to Dr. Mays.