By Marian Wright Edelman
“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
President, Morehouse College
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 President 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.
President 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 President Mays helped shape was Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he lovingly eulogized on that campus after his 1968 assassination.
Who are our Benjamin 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 President 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”?
And what message did it send to students and citizens of every color when Mary Jane Saunders, the president of Florida Atlantic University, sold the naming rights to its stadium for $6 million to the private prison company GEO Group? At a protest rally on campus, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union cited GEO Group’s “well-publicized record of abuse and neglect,” and quoted from an order of U.S. Judge Carlton Reeves describing one of their correctional facilities for minors and older teenage prisoners in Mississippi as “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions” and “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”
I do not believe this is the ideal of universities producing leaders “who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting the ills” that President Mays sought and taught. Who are the successor leaders today to Mays? Where are today’s moral leaders in other critical sectors who challenge and set the example for the rest of us? Where are today’s Abraham Joshua Heschels or Reinhold Niebuhrs or Eleanor Roosevelts or Dorothy Days? Where are Senators like Phil Hart and Wayne Morse who helped set a tone of political discourse too missing today in our legislative bodies? Where will the next leaders we can look up to as courageous and sacrificial champions of justice like Dr. King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney come from?
At the same time that we have a crisis in visible servant leadership examples, we have a crisis in core values. Are we content to be a society where virtually anything is available for profit or for sale, including the sale over the counter at Wal-Mart and other stores of deadly assault weapons capable of gruesome and senseless mass destruction like that which ravaged 20 small Newtown, Conn. children and their teachers? Are we content to have deadly assault weapons treated as normal consumer products like toasters or vacuum cleaners? How have we come to normalize violence and unbridled commercialization unmoored from common and moral sense and public safety?
Is this the best we have to pass on to our children and grandchildren and the next generation of leaders the nation and world need today and tomorrow? Do corporate profits from dangerous products or harmful practices trump children’s security and safety in our nation? Is compromise that allows gross or some significant human injustice the best we can expect from American democracy? Isn’t it time to engage in a fuller discussion about the breakdown of core values in America and the values we do agree on and need and want to instill in the next generation? What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a human being? Robert Kennedy said this to students at the University of Kansas in 1968 about the need to rethink how we measure success in America:
“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that—counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.”
Senator Kennedy continued: “Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
I hope and pray we will not raise a new generation of children with high intellectual quotients and low caring and compassion quotients; with sharp competitive edges but dull cooperative instincts; with highly developed computer skills but poorly developed consciences; with a gigantic commitment to the big “I” but little sense of responsibility to the bigger “we”; with mounds of disconnected information without a moral context to determine its worth; with more and more knowledge and less and less imagination and appreciation for the magic of life that cannot be quantified or computerized; and with more and more worldliness and less and less wonder and awe for the sacred and everyday miracles of life. I hope as parents, educators, and faith, community, public and private sector leaders that we will raise children who care and work for justice and freedom for all.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.