LEWISTON — Beginning today and going full force tomorrow, Bates College will observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a big way.

For the 25th year, there will be daylong lectures, discussions, performances, debates and music, all free and open to the public.

While the civil rights leader never worked or lived in Maine, Bates has a deep connection to Martin Luther King Jr. through Benjamin Mays.

Mays graduated from Bates College in 1920 and later became president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, where King attended school. A civil rights leader, Mays was an adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. For decades he was a mentor to King, and gave the eulogy at King’s 1968 funeral.

“They had an active, ongoing connection and relationship,” said James Reese, associate dean of international students at Bates. Reese has studied Mays and met him several times before Mays died in 1984.

From the time MLK became a Morehouse College student until he was slain, the two talked often about religion, politics, civil rights, protests, strategies and boycotts.

King and Mays “made an agreement with each other that whoever passed away first, the other would do the eulogy,” Reese said. “Unfortunately, Mays did the eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr.”

Mays has been called King’s mentor and spiritual adviser, “but he was so much more,” said Loy Sartin of the Mays House Museum in Greenwood, S.C. “Mays had a profound influence on King.”

When King’s father was worried about his son’s safety as the civil rights movement was going on, Mays, King Sr. and King Jr. met. King Sr. said he did not want his son going back to Montgomery, it was too dangerous, Sartin said. King told his father he could not turn his back on the work and his followers.

Mays at Bates in 1917

Mays was born in South Carolina in 1894, the son of former slaves. According to the Mays House Museum, Mays’ early childhood memories include a white man approaching the family’s home on horseback, guns drawn.

The hate, lynching, violence and segregation made a lasting impression on Mays, who decided at a young age to get a good education.

After graduating from high school, he attended Virginia Union. There, two professors impressed with his ability encouraged him to go to a more challenging college in Maine: Bates. At Bates blacks and women were welcomed and respected, which was unusual in 1917. The two professors were both white and both Bates graduates.

Attending Bates was liberating for Mays, according to the Mays House Museum. He was treated with respect among whites, played football, was captain of the debate team and was an honor student.

Like King, Mays was a master orator. Shortly after arriving in Lewiston, Mays participated in a speech contest. “There weren’t many expectations he’d do well,” Reese said. He won.

In the 1920 Bates yearbook is a comment about Mays that says, “If you have ever heard Benny speak, you would never forget it.”

Reese experienced that in 1981 when Mays gave a vigorous talk in the Bates chapel. As he exclaimed in his last line: “’And they were ashamed for what they had done!’ Mays shook those windows in the chapel!” Reese said. “He could speak.”

In 1940, Mays became president of Morehouse College, an all-male college. Because of World War II there was a concern about a lack of students, so Mays looked around Atlanta for talented high school students to recruit.

Martin Luther King Jr.

“He was aware of all the ministers in the area, including Martin Luther King Sr. By knowing him, he got to know Martin Luther King Jr.,” Reese said. After meeting Mays, the younger King agreed to become a Morehouse student.

At Morehouse, King met often with Mays, discussing Mays’ recent lectures. Sometimes King complimented Mays, sometimes he challenged him, Reese said.

Upon graduation, Mays advised King to go to Boston University for his Ph.D. The two talked often on the phone and in person when King was home in Atlanta.

After King graduated from BU, Mays offered him a job as a Morehouse professor.

“King turned it down to take a church in Montgomery,” Reese said. “If he took the professorship, it would have been an easier life, but we would not have any idea of who he was.”

Soon, “there was Rosa Parks, deciding to stay sitting on the bus,” Reese said. “The boycott began. They asked him to lead it. The rest is history.”

In Mays’ book, “Born to Rebel,” he said he admired how King would ask for advice, consider it, then do what he thought was right.

When King was wrongly arrested during a protest, he was asked in court if he wanted to pay the fine or go to jail. King said he’d go to jail to respond to the unjust penalty.

Quoting Mays, Reese said, “Everyone remembers him going to jail. No one would remember him paying the fine.”

After King was assassinated, Mays characterized it as a loss for society. Those around him saw how it hurt Mays, as if he had lost a son. “Coretta Scott King said when Martin lost his life, it affected Dr. Mays deeply. She would go and see him,” Reese said.

King was 39 when he died. “For all he accomplished, Mays said he would have accomplished far greater things,” Reese said.

Reese, 60, came to Bates in 1977. He grew up in Selma, Ala., and in Tennessee in a segregated world. There were “colored” and “white” signs on water fountains and in schools, libraries, restaurants and parks.

At the time, Reese’s father, James Reese, was a minister who today shares with students what it was like to be at the march on Washington and hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in person. (The elder Reese will talk to Martel Elementary School students by phone Tuesday.)

As a boy, the younger Reese and others knew all about Benjamin Mays. “He was spoken of with wonder and awe.”

When Reese was told during his Bates interview that Benjamin Mays had graduated there, “my first reaction was, ‘Really?’” with a skeptical tone, Reese said. It gave him an immediate appreciation for Bates and what the college stands for, he said.

He met Mays in person when Mays returned to Bates for reunions in 1981 and 1982.

“He was not full of himself,” Reese said. “He listened very carefully to who he was talking to. He was very personable, an incredible listener.”

At Morehouse College, Mays often spoke of Bates. The college is known in the South.

“I have evidence of this,” Reese said.

One year he was driving his parents and their friends around in Alabama.

As the older generation shared stories, “the lady of the house said to me, ‘Young man, what do you do?’”

“I’m an assistant dean at a small college in Maine,” Reese answered.

“What college is that?” she asked.

“Bates College,” Reese said.

“Bates College! That’s where Benny Mays went to school!” she exclaimed. “That’s magnificent! Let me go back in the kitchen and cook you something up.”

Reese smiled. “We had dinner.”

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“I Have a Dream”

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