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To Benjamin Elijah Mays

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Author: King, Martin Luther, Jr. (Montgomery Improvement Association)

Date: June 17, 1957

Location: Montgomery, Ala.?

Genre: Letter

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Education


In an 11 January letter, Mays broached the idea of nominating King for an honorary degree from Morehouse College: “It would be a nice thing if your Alma Mater were the first institution to recognize your worth.”1 On 13 April the Morehouse Board of Trustees voted to award King an honorary degree at the college commencement on 4 June.2 King also participated in the June graduation ceremonies of Kentucky State University, the Chicago Theological Seminary, where he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity, and Howard University, where he received an honorary Doctor of Laws.3

Dr. B. E. Mays, President 
Morehouse College 
Atlanta, Georgia

Dear Dr. Mays:

This is just a note to again express my appreciation to you, the faculty, and members of the Board of Trustees for bestowing upon me the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. This is an honor that I will cherish so long as the cords of memory shall lengthen. The eloquent and inspiring citation that you read in presenting the degree will remain one of the sacred possessions of my life.4 My one great hope is that I will always be able to live up to the noble and sublime principles inherent in such a degree. I am very happy that Morehouse College was the first institution to bestow upon me an honorary degree. 

Very sincerely yours, 
M. L. King, Jr., 


1. King gave his assent on 16 January: “Although I am not the judge as to whether I am worthy to receive such an honor, I can say that I would always seek to live up to the noble precepts inherent therein.”

2. Mays to King, 7 May 1957; King to Mays, 15 May 1957. Morehouse also honored United Nations mediator Frank Porter Graham, a former U.S. senator and president of the University of North Carolina, who delivered the main address at the event. Charles Dunbar Sherman of Liberia, the first person of African descent to serve as president of the world alliance of YMCAs, was awarded a Doctor of Laws.

3. Howard president Mordecai Johnson said in his citation for King: “You have led your people on a victorious pathway seldom tried in human life. You have shown them how to mobilize the fullest powers of their souls for effective resistance to evil and how to overcome humiliation and abuse without violence and without hatred in deed or in words. . . . The example of your leadership has given hope to those who suffer from oppression all over the former slave states and those who suffer from humiliation all over the world” (“President Johnson’s Citations: Martin Luther King,” Howard University Bulletin, 15 July 1957).

4. Mays’s citation read in part: “You are mature beyond your years, wiser at twenty-nine than most men at sixty: more courageous in a righteous struggle than most men can ever be, living a faith that most men preach about and never experience. . . . Threatened and bombed, yet remaining poised and calm, cool and collected, loving and not hating, you have led the people of Montgomery to a great victory. . . . Because you did not seek fame, it has come to you. It must have been a person like you that Emerson had in mind when he said, ‘See how the masses of men worry themselves into nameless graves when here and there a great, unselfish soul forgets himself into immortality’” (Mays, “Citations to Recipients of Honorary Degrees: Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Morehouse College Bulletin, July 1957).

Source: MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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