There were some words that kept running through my mind on Thursday evening, as I sat in the lovely auditorium at the Greenwood Community Theatre, surrounded by some of the city’s key political and business leaders.
They were words offered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on at least a couple of occasions, including in remarks to students at Oberlin College in 1964. Words that ring out as clearly now as they did six decades ago: “The time is always right to do right.”
And on Thursday, the Greenwood SC Chamber of Commerce did what was right. It posthumously inducted Dr. Benjamin E. Mays into the Greenwood County Hall of Fame.
This was, in my estimation, an honor long, long overdue. My take on the matter likely won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed this column space for any length of time. I’ve been on the bandwagon of trying to get Mays in the county Hall of Fame for a decade.
I’ve certainly not been alone, as there have been a number of folks in Greenwood advocating in Mays’ memory for years, including the brothers from the local chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, the leadership at GLEAMNS, and key players at the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historic Site, including director Chris Thomas and beloved Mays historian Loy Sartin.
Many of you are, by now, likely familiar with the story of Mays, a native of Greenwood County’s Epworth community and a son of former slaves who was born in 1894 and went on to become a pioneer of the civil rights movement and one of the nation’s foremost orators and educators.
Quite simply, he led one of the most dynamic lives of the 20th century. For 27 years he was the president of Morehouse College, where he served as King’s spiritual mentor when King was just a young student at the college. In 1968, after King was assassinated in Memphis, Mays delivered the stirring eulogy at his former student’s funeral.
Mays was an adviser to three U.S. presidents, and had a particularly special friendship with President Jimmy Carter. He held court with Mahatma Gandhi, and was a friend and mentor to Atlanta Braves legend Hank Aaron, especially during moments when Aaron faced racist threats while playing in the Deep South during his march to what was then baseball’s home run record.
The Epworth native, who wrote eight books and more than 2,000 articles, also was the first Black president of the Atlanta School Board, and led the school system peacefully through the delicate process of integration.
So it was, indeed, more than appropriate that the Greenwood Chamber would enshrine Mays in the county Hall of Fame, even some 37 years after his 1984 death. Again, the time is always right to do right.
It was such a sincere pleasure to see members of Mays’ family in attendance at the Thursday induction ceremony, and I was also quite happy for Sartin, who has long rallied to raise awareness of the life and achievements of the late educator and civil rights champion. Indeed it was Sartin who, years ago, took me on a tour of a then-new Mays Historic Site, and opened my eyes to one of Greenwood’s most cherished sons.
As I type this, I’m looking across to a shelf that holds one of my most prized possessions: A signed copy of Mays’ autobiography, “Born to Rebel.” It was a Christmas gift from my mother-in-law a few years back.
The book was autographed 50 years ago: “To Doctor William Marine, with appreciation and best wishes. Benjamin E. Mays. 6-7-1971.”
I don’t know Dr. Marine, nor do I know how, over the course of 50 years, a copy of Mays’ biography signed to him eventually found its way to my living room. My hope is that, long after I’m gone from this world, the book will continue to travel on, from one generation to the next, so that others might read the story of a man who came out of tiny Epworth in Greenwood County and changed the world.
Many thanks, again, to the Greenwood Chamber and its Hall of Fame committee for seeing fit to enshrine one of Greenwood’s most consequential sons. Long may his memory live.