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Missing leadership, core values

Marian Wright Edelman | 3/31/2013, 4:10 p.m.

"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."

  • Benjamin E. Mays

Benjamin E. Mays, Morehouse College's president from 1940-1967, said this about the kind of men and leaders he expected Morehouse to produce. As a student at neighboring Spelman College, I heard and saw 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, 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 Jim Crow laws in the sit-in movement to open up public accommodations to all citizens.

Mays taught us that "not failure, but low aim is sin" and warned that "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." As students we hungrily internalized his unerring belief that we were God's instruments for helping transform the world, and like many others who heard him frequently, I often repeated his words. One of the many Morehouse students Mays helped shape was Martin Luther King Jr., whom he lovingly eulogized on that campus after his 1968 assassination.

Who are our Mayses today - our moral compasses in crucial sectors of American life? What a contrast the Mays example is to that of a college president in the headlines recently, James Wagner of Emory University. He was criticized for praising the 1787 compromise declaring that every slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of state representation in Congress as an example of "noble achievement" that allowed Northern and Southern White congressmen to "continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared ‒ the aspiration to form a more perfect union."

We have struggled for over two centuries to overcome the crippling birth defects and glaring hypocrisies between the eloquent words that "all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights" in our Declaration of Independence belied by slavery, Native American genocide, and exclusion of women and non-propertied White men in our founders' deeds. That tragic hypocrisy resulted in a bloody Civil War that took more than 530,000 American lives and a post-Reconstruction era with Jim Crow laws, decades of struggle, and many lost lives, countless marches, lawsuits and legislative efforts to achieve major civil rights legislation. And we must still be vigilant and fight to protect the hard-earned social and racial progress over the last half-century from being undermined by voter suppression, the cradle to prison pipeline, mass incarceration, and pervasive economic and educational inequalities. What kind of message did Wagner's words send to Emory's Black students, who were quickly joined by some White students, faculty members and others in denouncing his endorsement of the decision that codified less-than-fully-human status as "5/5ths outrageous?"