To author Alex Haley, Benjamin Elijah Mays is "a monument," the man he was taken to see as a young child. To Rosalynn Carter, he is "a great American and a very special person" from whom the president has sought advice on everything from the welfare of elderly black Americans to SALT II.
And to all those who gathered last night for the dinner sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change honoring the 87-year-old black educator, Mays is a man whose long history of service as memtor and leader is inextricable from that of the civil rights movement.
"You've done so much you can't remember it all," said one well-wisher to the president emeritus of Morehouse College and the man who not only served as Martin Luther King's mentor in his college days but who delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Dr. Mays smiled and sat serene in a straight-backed chair during the reception, looking resplendent in a glittering red tuxedo jacket. Mays said he is still writing and speaking and, what with the elections looming ahead, "putting in the plug" for President Carter whenever he got the chance. Asked about Rev. Ralph Abernathy's recent endorsement of Ronald Reagan, he called it a "terrible mistake." Abernathy, he said, "doesn't have that much clout and black folks are condemning him for what he did."
At the dinner, which was held at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, the dais was loaded with dignitaries, including Department of Health annd Human Services Secretary Patricia R. Harris, Dr. Martin Luther King Sr., Coretta Scott King and Mayor Marion Barry. Secretary Harris, in her remarks, spoke of Mays and the other great men in his generation as possessing "the flame that freezes." She had come to understand, she said, "the anger that they had, a deeper anger that froze their resolve to do everything they could to see that the next generation did not suffer as they had suffered." Mays, she said, was "part of a tradition too little noted and too little understood, the tradition of the black intellectual."
But the people gathered there last night had long noted and understood it well. "He touched so many people," said one of the guests. " When I look at him, I don't see an old man but a man who has always remained vital. The sad thing is there aren't that many coming along to replace him."
The dinner was followed by a long list of Mays' admirers from all walks of life and as Coretta Scott King said in her tribute to him, "This is a family kind of affair. It's just so wonderful you've all come to pay tribute to this man who will live on in all our hearts."
Alex Haley had been chosen to give the keynote address after the dinner, and in his speech he urged those present to "spread our abilities more widely in more fields." To follow the example set by heroes like Benjamin E. Mays, Haley said, "we have to be everywhere in the doings of this world." e
In his response, Mays began with a lesson. "It is my belief," he said, "my confirmed conviction, that every person is sent into the world by God to do something unique and, if he or she does not do it, it will never be done." With characteristic humility, however, he spent the rest of his address paying tribute to his greatest student, Martin Luther King Jr. "My friendship with Martin began when we had compulsory chapel at Morehouse," he said, "and Martin was always there. After chapel he often walked with me and, through Martin, I became a friend of the family, a constant visitor to the King's home. So, you see that my life is interlaced, interwoven and intertwined with the King family . . . so you see, I had to be here tonight. Not to be here, not to let my name be used, would be letting Martin down, and that is something I have never done and never would do, is let Martin down."