By Jacqueline Knirnschild
With experience serving as the Governor of Mississippi, the 75th Secretary of the Navy, the State Auditor of Mississippi, and the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ray Mabus is clearly a lifelong student dedicated to the betterment of his state and country, which is why he has been inducted into the University of Mississippi chapter of Phi Beta Kappa as an alumni member.
“The Beta of Mississippi chapter at the University of Mississippi was thrilled to nominate, and induct, two alumni members in 2020, the 20th anniversary of our chapter’s existence,” said Chapter President Sandra Spiroff. “The rationale for alumni membership is to honor the academic achievements of former students who earned Phi Beta Kappa status prior to the inception of our chapter in 2001.”
“I am so deeply honored to have been selected,” Mabus stated. “When I received my Phi Beta Kappa certificate, I wished so much that my parents were still alive. To them, academic achievement was the highest goal that a person could aspire to attain.”
Mabus grew up in the small town of Ackerman, Mississippi, where his parents and extended family instilled in him a love for reading and education. Mabus’ father, Raymond Mabus Sr., was born in 1901 into a rural Mississippi home where there was no running water or electricity, and went on to receive a degree in engineering, open a hardware store, and then returned to school in his 50s for a degree in philosophy.
After graduating as the valedictorian of his public high school, Mabus completed a double major in political science and English at the University of Mississippi, then earned a master’s degree in political science from Johns Hopkins in 1970 before serving for two years in the US Navy.
While Mabus was away in the Navy, his acceptance letter to Harvard Law School was sent to his home in Ackerman. His father opened the letter and began to cry, then showed it to Mabus’ mother, Lucille Mabus.
Despite the support of his parents, Mabus said most Mississippians back then paid way more attention to sports stars than academic stars, which is something he tried to change about the culture during his time as governor from 1988 to 1992. Mabus, who, at age 39, became the youngest governor in the country at the time, championed education by giving teachers the largest pay raise in the nation and pushing for an education reform plan, B.E.S.T. (Better Education for Success Tomorrow).
“We have to value education more highly,” Mabus said. “The only way up, the only way to improve is through better education, and not just better education for a few, but better education for everyone—and if we don’t do that, we’re going to be consigned to be at or near the bottom forever.”
In order to improve, Mabus also believes that Mississippi desperately needs to change the state flag, which currently includes the Confederate battle flag, and take down every single confederate statue. In a 2017 article for Time magazine, Mabus refers to confederate statues and memorials as “monuments to treason” because they celebrate those who took up arms against the United States in defense of slavery.
“The Confederate battle flag was used in a war fought so that one group of people could own another group,” Mabus said. “And the notion that you should somehow honor that, that hatred is not involved, that it’s only history, ignores the pain and the incredible suffering.”
Mabus remembers when federal troops had to come to campus to contain the violent riots that had erupted in response to James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi, attending his first day of classes in 1962.
“I was in the 9th grade when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss,” Mabus said. “That Monday morning after the riot—it was the talk of my school, and I came home that afternoon and said something I had heard at school—something smart—to my father and he sat me down and talked to me for two hours about the rule of law, about the inherent equality of people, about how not to judge people on things like skin color but to judge them on ability and individuality.”
That conversation with his father changed Mabus’ views on race and led him to react differently to racism when he was older. When Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, Mabus was a junior in college. He remembers at a meeting that night, the president of his fraternity used a racial slur, which caused Mabus to get up, walk out, and never talk to the guy again.
“In ’68, we had the same level of frustration, anger, and racism in our society as today,” Mabus said. “But we have more universal outpouring now—back then, no one was talking about ending systemic racism.”
Mabus said we still have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but he is hopeful that all the energy and intensity of the recent Black Lives Matter protests can be translated into the dismantling of systematic racism. People seem more willing to learn nowadays, Mabus said, which is crucial because the root issue underlying all of America’s biggest problems—racial inequality, COVID-19, and climate change—is distrust in science, data, and evidence.
“There’s an intersection—they’re all driven by the same belittling of science, the manipulation of data for political gain,” Mabus said. He believes climate change and COVID-19 deniers are following the lead of big tobacco industries, which knew for years that smoking was bad for you but insisted that the science was wrong in order to make more of a profit.
When he was the Secretary of the Navy from 2009 to 2017, Mabus declared climate change an issue of national security, and he got the Navy and the Marines mostly off fossil fuels. During his eight-year tenure, which was the longest tenure in the position since World War I, he also opened all jobs to women, developed the Gulf Restoration Plan after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and named ships after civil rights activist John Lewis and gay rights activist Harvey Milk.
Now, Mabus is the head of a strategic advisory firm focused on leading through change and resilience, which has worked with innovators in clean energy, education, environment, and new economy.
One of the reasons Mabus has accomplished so much and continues to be a trailblazer for change is his commitment to the Phi Beta Kappa motto: Love of learning is the guide of life.
“If you don’t keep learning throughout your lifetime you will almost certainly not reach your full potential,” Mabus said.
Jacqueline Knirnschild is a graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied creative writing, anthropology, and Chinese. The University of Mississippi is home to the Beta of Mississippi chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.