More Lessons in Leadership

“It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates, men fluent in speech and able to argue their way through; but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private—who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting the ills.”

–Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Morehouse College’s president from 1940-1967, said this about the kind of graduates and leaders he expected Morehouse to produce. As a student at neighboring Spelman College, I heard and saw Dr. Mays often and had the privilege of singing in Morehouse’s Sunday morning chapel choir and hearing this great man’s wisdom. Of the six college presidents in the Atlanta University academic complex Dr. Mays was the one students looked up to most. He inspired and taught us by example and stood by us when we challenged Atlanta’s racial discrimination, and we hungrily internalized his unerring belief that we were God’s instruments for helping transform the world.

Some of his teachings I wrote in my college diary. Others I internalized and, like many others who heard him frequently, I often shared his words. I especially remember his oft-repeated “God’s Minute” from an anonymous sage:

I have just one minute
Only sixty seconds in it,
Forced upon me—can’t refuse it
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute—
But eternity is in it.

He taught us all “the tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.” One of the many Morehouse students Dr. Mays helped shape was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When Morehouse College bade Dr. King farewell after his assassination at a service on the grassy rectangle connecting Atlanta University with Morehouse, where I stood with thousands of others who had marched behind his simple mule-driven cortege, Dr. Mays movingly saluted his former student, fellow freedom fighter, and servant of God with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “See how the masses of men worry themselves into nameless graves, while here and there a great unselfish soul forgets himself into immortality.”

Who are our Dr. Mayses today—our moral compasses in crucial sectors of American life? Every time there is a new debate over political leadership it is worth returning to the examples we want to see. It is also up to us to encourage the next generation of unselfish citizens and servant-leaders who are sensitive to the wrongs, sufferings, and injustices of society and ready to do their own part to transform the world.