Benjamin Elijah Mays was an active inspiration to this nation’s civil rights movement, a Baptist minister who Martin Luther King Jr. credited as his “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father.”

Mays was with King in Washington, D.C., in 1963 when King gave his “I Have Dream Speech,” and was asked by King to give the benediction.

At King’s funeral in 1968, Mays gave the final eulogy at Morehouse College, where he served as president emeritus, to more than 150,000 mourners. There, he said, “If Jesus was called to preach the Gospel to the poor, Martin Luther was called to give dignity to the common man. If a prophet is one who interprets in clear and intelligible language the will of God, Martin Luther King Jr. fits that designation. If a prophet is one who does not seek popular causes to espouse, but rather the causes he thinks are right, Martin Luther qualified on that score.”

Last Sunday, in recognition of the important life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., we published a story about Mays and his connection to King and to Lewiston. The story featured a shameful incident at the former DeWitt Hotel in 1945 during which the hotel’s manager refused seat Mays in the main dining hall for fear of “embarrassing” Mays, who the manager worried may not be well received by other patrons.

Because he was Black.

Because, once — years before — when the manager had seated a group of Bates College professors and Black guests in the dining room, several women were offended and left the hotel without paying for their meals.

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Mays, a 1920 graduate of Bates College, often came back to Lewiston to visit the campus and the city that had meant so much to him. On the day he was denied a seat at the DeWitt, Mays — then the president of Morehouse College — was in Lewiston to speak to a crowd of some 750 people at the United Baptist Church.

He was here to deliver a powerful spiritual message of faith and aspiration to the congregants and their guests, inspiring people to rise up for the good.

After which, he was rewarded with an overt act of racism. No matter his accomplishments, his devotion to the city or the spiritual strength he invested in people, the only thing that mattered to a hotel manager in that moment was the color of his skin.

Some of the response to our story was disturbing.

Like this: “Wow cool — it was 80 years ago when racism and civil division was the sociocultural norm! Nothing like bringing up the past in a way meant to cause division to push an agenda that doesn’t need to exist in modern day culture huh?”

And this: “Back in 1945. Things have changed a lot since then. Why is the newspaper trying to divide people?”

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And this: The people involved in the incident in 1945 came to an amicable solution. There was very little racism in the area back then.”

Did they find an amicable solution? Banning a man from a public space solely because he was Black hardly qualifies.

And, finally, this: “Keep ripping the band-aid off to keep the wound fresh. All involved in that situation are now dead. But let’s keep bringing it up, to refresh the narrative every chance you can. When is it time to say when?”

When is it time to say when?

When racism ends, that’s when, and we’re not there yet.

In fact, we’re moving in the wrong direction.

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According to Department of Justice statistics on race-motivated crimes against people, there were 11 Maine hate crime convictions in 2018. In 2019 there were 10; in 2020 there were 40.

Hate crimes based on sexual orientation are also on the rise, from six in 2018 to 36 in 2020, and hate crimes based on religion are rising as well.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were 83 bias-motivated crimes in Maine last year, the most since 2008.

Racism is real. It existed in the past and is clearly present in the now.

In Lewiston, two groups — Lewiston-Auburn Community Housing and Community Concepts — along with other partners have launched the Choice Neighborhood Transformation Plan in the downtown, including a massive housing and retail building that will sit on the corner of Park and Pine streets — precisely where the DeWitt Hotel used to stand.

The focus of the “Growing Our Tree Streets” transition plan, which has been a community-led project, is to address documented hurdles for people living in the downtown, “such as the disproportionate levels of childhood lead poisoning, concentrated poverty, disinvested housing stock, slow pace of revitalization and rehab, and recent traumas tied to race-related violence and substance misuse.”

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Sounds quite a bit like what Martin Luther King Jr. and Benjamin Elijah Mays spent their lives tackling.

Here’s an idea:  The 66-unit housing complex to be built on the DeWitt site will have a common space for residents’ use. Why not name that space in Mays’ honor?

Give him a virtual seat at the table in the very spot where he was so wrongly denied.

It wouldn’t be justice, but it sure would be just.


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