How Cain sat out civil rights activism at Morehouse

theGRIO REPORT - At an institution such as Morehouse, there were plenty of opportunities to participate in civil rights activities as well as to interact with now legendary leaders of the movement...

During his appearance on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell last week, GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain and O’Donnell got into several heated exchanges. One of particular interest was Cain’s inactivity during the Civil Rights Movement.

The exchange started when O’Donnell presented the following passage from Cain’s book: “The Civil Rights movement was a few years in front of me. I was too young to participate when they first started the Freedom Rides and the sit-ins. So on a day-to-day basis, it didn’t have an impact. I just kept going to school, doing what I was supposed to do, and stayed out of trouble — I didn’t go downtown and try to participate in the sit-ins…counter to our real feelings, we decided to avoid trouble by moving to the back of the bus when the driver told us to…Dad always said, ‘Stay out of trouble,’ and we did.”

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Cain responded that he was a high school student and, therefore, was not free to act on his own. Yet Cain claimed, “If I had been a college student I probably would have been participating.” When O’Donnell pointed out that Cain was actually a college student from 1963 to 1967 during some of the most well-known clashes, such as “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, took place.

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But Cain wasn’t just a college student. He was a college student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King’s alma mater. Its legendary president Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was a mentor to Dr. King and was vehemently opposed to segregation.

In his book, Born to Rebel: An Autobiography, Mays wrote “I have often said that I came out of my mother’s womb kicking against segregation and discrimination based on race, color, religion, ethnic or national origin” as well as “I plead guilty to the charge that I am a desegregationist.” Mays, who led Morehouse from 1940 to 1967, even gave the benediction at the historic March on Washington.

Civil rights activities, as several who attended Morehouse during the same years as Cain attest, were part of the Morehouse character, especially during that era. Dr. Walter M. Burns, a Houston native who now leads the Christian Home Community Church just outside Atlanta, shared that “Some of Dr. King’s people would come over and get some of us to march with them and, of course, as a freshman and a sophomore, I marched occasionally.”

Burns, who knows Cain well, also added that “We had a chance to be around Dr. King.” In fact, on Sundays, buses regularly carted Morehouse students to King’s family church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he often preached, Burns pointed out.
Georgia native Bill Henderson, who is now retired and resides in Texas, does note that students like himself who worked with rallies or lent assistance to Julian Bond would have to do so on their own time.

Frequently, he and other classmates sneaked out of their dorms to pursue heightened activism as Morehouse did not officially sanction those activities. That, however, did not stop most of his student body from being involved in some way.

“There were so many people who wanted to do so much and to be part of it that you virtually had to look the other way if you didn’t want to be involved,” he recalled.

And being a commuter, as Cain was, did not prevent a lot of students from actively engaging in civil rights activities. In fact, Henderson, who, like Burns, attended Morehouse with Cain, shared that “There was not a clear-cut line of demarcation from what city kids did and what kids at the AU Center did,” adding that “We were all in there together.”

Such realities contradict Cain’s statement “If I had been a college student I probably would have been participating” to O’Donnell. At an institution such as Morehouse, there were plenty of opportunities to participate in civil rights activities as well as to interact with now legendary leaders of the movement.

Few would have given up an opportunity to engage with Dr. King himself who was not a rare presence on the campus. Yet, it can be assumed that Cain did just that.

“Did you expect every black student and every black college in America to be out there in the middle of every fight? The answer is no,” Cain chastised O’Donnell. As a Morehouse man, and a member of the Morehouse Board of Trustees to boot, running for president, it is eyebrow-raising that Cain did not expect more of himself.

Given that the general public, white and black, tend to regard the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as one of the single greatest social revolutions of the 20th century, to sit on the sidelines during such an historic period doesn’t bode well for Cain’s reputation.