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Founder’s Day 2007: Honoring ‘Representative Men’

By Shaneesa N. Ashford

Morehouse College’s observance of its 140th birthday proved representative of the College’s standing as the largest private liberal arts college for African American men.

The weeklong Founder’s Day celebration began with the College’s visit to Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, an event that occurs every five years. During this visit, a wreath is placed on the grave of founder William Jefferson White, considered Morehouse’s original “representative man.” Faculty, staff and students also visited Augusta’s Tabernacle Baptist Church, which was founded by Morehouse alumnus the Rev. Charles T. Walker, and Harmony Baptist Church, which was founded by White and served as the second home of the College.

Upon returning home, Morehouse continued to honor its own “representative men.” Using the term taken from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Morehouse alumnus Eddie S. Glaude Jr. ’89, associate professor of religion at Princeton University and speaker for the Founder’s Day Convocation, spoke of a people’s need for great leaders. Emerson spoke the naturalness of belief in great men; Glaude spoke of the “seduction of greatness.”

“Great people exist so that even greater people can follow,” said Glaude.

Indeed, Morehouse used its birthday to honor greatness. Throughout the Founder’s Day festivities, the College saluted “representative men” in the areas of civil and human rights, arts and entertainment, medicine, theology, business, law and politics.

This year’s Candle honorees were the Rev. Joseph Lowery, civil rights leader and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Sidney Poitier, the first African American male to win an Academy Award for Best Actor; Roscoe Lee Browne, an Emmy winner and Tony nominee; Alden McDonald, CEO of Liberty Bank and Trust Company, the first African American owned commercial bank in Louisiana; and the Rev. Amos C. Brown '64, senior pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco.

The Bennie Award, presented to distinguished alumni, was presented to Dr. Melvin Smith ’61, pediatric orthopedic surgeon; Robert C. Davidson '67, president and CEO of Surface Protection Industries; and Leroy Johnson '49, former Georgia senator and attorney.

Individually, these men are trailblazers in their own right. Collectively, however, the group brought a wealth of knowledge to the Morehouse campus community during the annual Reflections of Excellence program, held on Feb. 18. And for the first time, honorees served as “professor for a day,” speaking to numerous classes.

As each reflected on his professional and personal life, one theme continued to surface: leadership.

In discussing his life as CEO of Liberty Trust, McDonald spoke of a need for being a part of the decision-making process, a philosophy that has allowed him to succeed despite personal tribulations.

“It is important to plan every step of personal, professional and community life,” McDonald said. “I want to be on the design side and not the behind side.”
The sentiments were echoed by other members of the panel. Davidson took it a step further in his five keys to success, which included setting clear goals, developing a plan and establishing high expectations.

Poitier, who broke racial barriers in the film industry, spoke of “a pivotal moment of decision.” His moment of decision came after a devastating audition, when he was told by the director to seek a job as a dishwasher.

“He said that because that was his worth of my value,” Poitier said. “(I said) I must show him that he is wrong about me. I will prove it to him and myself.”

The Rev. Otis Moss Jr. ’56, former chair of the Morehouse Board of Trustees and pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, culminated the Founder’s Week celebration during Sunday’s closing service by taking a look at a decidedly less glamorous perspective on the College’s founding: the role that struggle has in the making of a great institution or individual.

“All struggle will not make you great, but you cannot be great without struggle,” he said. “A tree that has never been in a storm is not trustworthy—it may even be dangerous. The winds help the roots to grow deeper, make the branches grow wider and the top grow taller.

“After the storm, the tree is always stronger.”

-- Vickie G. Hampton contributed to this report.

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