By Malcolm Morse
“Well, there were four of us in the book. I was just the first person to sign,” Dr. Michael Lomax, CEO and President of the United Negro College Fund, said with a quick chuckle. Reflecting on his induction into Phi Beta Kappa in 1968, the charter year of the Delta of Georgia chapter at Morehouse College, a small liberal arts college established for the education of African American men located in Atlanta, Georgia, he recounted the role he played in the chapter’s acquisition.
There were certain standards that needed to be met for the college to become eligible for a chapter; offering a course in a classical language (Latin or Greek) was one of them. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, the president of Morehouse, offered Latin and the small class consisted of three people: Michael Lomax, Asap Yancy, and the professor, Dr. Cooper.
Mays seemed to be cognizant of the coming reality of a newly established ΦBK chapter at Morehouse when at the beginning of Lomax’s senior year, he sent letters to a small group of academically superior students encouraging them to work hard and maintain excellence in their studies.
Here, Lomax pauses to reminisce on his undergraduate experience which, like those of many Morehouse graduates, was one that heavily intertwined academic study and a commitment to social justice. He recalls being socially active fighting for the anti-war and civil rights movements, specifically the time when Morehouse students organized to pressure the college Board of Trustees to divest institutional funds from South Africa in response to Apartheid, and how he went a whole semester refusing to cut off his beard in silent protest.
Despite all of these rich extracurricular experiences, Lomax describes ΦBK as “one of the great academic achievements of his college career” and that he feels honored to be able to say that he played a part in bringing such a prestigious organization to Morehouse College.
When asked about Dr. Mays and his vision for the small, relatively-unknown liberal arts college, Lomax’s voice filled with admiration and pride as he began to talk about perhaps the most prolific and beloved of all Morehouse presidents. Lomax summed up in one sentence what Mays’ autobiography, entitled Born to Rebel, conveys so masterfully when he said, “Mays wanted to take this small liberal arts college and turn it into a highly respected institution of the highest level.”
In 1968, only two other Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs), Fisk (Tennessee) and Howard (Washington, D.C.) already had a ΦBK chapter, and it was through Mays’ dogged persistence and determination that Morehouse College joined this select group.
Lomax pensively considered his educational experience over the course of his lifetime and he pointed to the four years he spent at Morehouse as the formative period, from which the activist, political figure, and role model that he would become germinated. He offered a quick memory from his days as a student where he would see Dr. Mays, every day it seemed, walking across campus purposefully. This memory probably remains clear in the minds of many Morehouse students from that era as the tradition and expectation is indoctrinated still today into incoming students that Men of Morehouse walk expeditiously and with a purpose.
Passing away in 1984, Mays has left this world physically but his impact on Morehouse lives on through his legacy including, among many things, bringing ΦBK to Morehouse, founding Crown Forum, and mentoring a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The culmination of his vision, the moment where Morehouse could no longer be ignored, occurred on May 19, 2013, as the whole world turned its gaze to Century Campus as the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, addressed the college’s graduating class at commencement.
The conversation, now on the topic of legacy, then turned to Lomax’s connection to the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which is scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2016. Appointed to the President’s Advisory Board on HBCUs by President George W. Bush, Lomax explained “he’s been at this for about twenty years” and is extremely excited about what this museum will mean for Blacks in this country and for the country as a whole.
In a brief moment where his joyful countenance quickly became solemn, he said, “Knowing who I am and where I come from is very challenging.” A member of the founding council of the museum, Lomax described the museum’s purpose of “making history clear and motivating others [and] giving them something to aspire to [as] important to all Americans.”
Lomax highlights how the mission of the NMAAHC museum and ΦBK go hand in hand as the liberal arts encourage the pursuit of knowledge, which includes learning one’s history and culture. Coming from a family of journalists and writers, he’s “always been a student of the liberal arts” and he distinguished between earning a good living and making a good life and that the liberal arts have given him the tools to achieve both.
Following this, he urges young people to ignore those who write articles and make reports saying college is a bad investment. He asks them to challenge those naysayers because he doesn’t believe they try to convince their own children to forego the collegiate experience. “Yes, college is expensive, but whatever is borrowed is worth it,” says Lomax.
According to Lomax, the UNCF is providing scholarships in greater amounts and to a greater amount of students than ever before. In addition, the organization advocates at the policy and governmental levels for solutions to help make college a reality for aspiring students who may not be able to afford it. If you would like to donate to the UNCF, please click here.
Malcolm B. Morse is a recent graduate of Morehouse College in English and political science. He became a member of Phi Beta Kappa his junior year. Morehouse College is home to the Delta of Georgia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.