For nearly two decades, Bates College in Lewiston has celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day with vigor, recognizing its roots as a school that was founded by abolitionists, welcomed former slaves among its first students, and graduated one of the civil rights leader’s closest advisers.

Classes are suspended Monday, capping off a long weekend of special events, including a student debate honoring the Rev. Benjamin Mays, a 1920 Bates graduate who became president of Morehouse College and was a significant mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

This year, the college’s social justice heritage and ties to King have taken on greater importance following controversial police killings of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, that have stirred racial tensions across the nation.

“We’re giving space to conversations that need to be had,” said Annakay Wright, a sophomore who helped to plan the college’s MLK Day program and who is co-director of Sankofa, a performance art group founded by black students.

Wright also organized a student “die-in” Dec. 2, when demonstrators lay on the floor of the Commons to represent black lives lost to violence across the country, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin.

The die-in sparked intense conversations among students, Wright said, which she hopes will continue during 20 workshops and other events scheduled Monday under the theme “From Selma to Ferguson: 50 Years of Nonviolent Dissent.” The title refers to protest marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, when demonstrators were attacked by state troopers. The protests prompted Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“We felt there wasn’t enough discussion on campus about what’s going on,” said Wright, who is from Brooklyn, New York. “That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year is very important. We live in a time when some people still are not safe. We need to appreciate the work that others have accomplished but realize that there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

PROTEST ADVICE FROM BATES GRAD

Mays played a critical role in the civil rights movement, tapping King to enroll at Morehouse College in Atlanta when he was just 15 years old. King earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the all-male, historically black college.

Mays, who was president of Morehouse from 1940 to 1967, was a civil rights leader in his own right, preaching the evils of segregation and lynching, promoting nonviolent protest after meeting with Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1936, and serving as an adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

While King was at Morehouse in the late 1940s, Mays encouraged him to pursue a graduate education, telling him how to prepare, what to expect and how to stay committed. King went on to get a bachelor’s degree in divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in systemic theology from Boston University.

“(Mays) was overtly serving the role as mentor to Martin Luther King from the beginning,” said James Reese, associate dean of students at Bates College. Reese has studied Mays’ career and spent time with him when he returned for reunions in the early 1980s.

When King became the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which led many important protests in the civil rights movement, Mays continued to be an adviser and a sounding board.

“King would call on Mays for advice and to discuss approaches to protests, so that bond was even stronger than the mentor role he had during King’s college years,” Reese said.

PRAISE FOR KING’S COURAGE, FAITH

Following King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, at age 39, Mays delivered a final eulogy on April 9 before an estimated 150,000 mourners on the Morehouse campus. After the funeral service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King’s mahogany coffin was carried to the college in an old farm wagon pulled by two mules.

Mays, who was 70 and had recently retired, described King as “more courageous than those who advocate violence as a way out.”

“Martin Luther faced the dogs, the police, jail, heavy criticism, and finally death, and he never carried a gun, not even a knife, to defend himself,” Mays said. “He had only his faith in a just God to rely on.”

The two men had agreed that one would eulogize the other, whoever died first, though the elder Mays thought it surely would be him. Devastated by the loss of his close friend and ally in the fight for civil rights, he compared eulogizing King to speaking at a son’s funeral.

“So close, so precious, was he to me,” Mays said.