Taking up the Mantle


Mary Frances Early gives keynote speech for KSU’s week of MLK events

KENNESAW, Ga. (Jan 18, 2019) — Mary Frances Early, the first African-American to earn a degree from the University of Georgia, addressed Kennesaw State students, faculty, staff, and community members on Thursday in a keynote speech marking the start of the University’s week of events honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Early, an Atlanta native, made history when she helped integrate UGA and earned a degree from the school in music education. While studying as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Early was moved by a television news report showing the challenges of the two first undergraduate students enrolled at UGA: Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes. Hunter and Holmes had been accosted by a jeering mob protesting their historic, court-ordered admittance to the university.

“I couldn’t believe there was a riot going on at the University of Georgia,” explained Early. “I looked at it, and I said ‘that’s not right – they can’t do that.’”

Early became determined to support these students by enrolling in the school; it took more than five months for the university to admit her after her initial interview. Sharing her story with the KSU crowd of more than 300, Early said that even before she arrived on campus, she faced her own challenges, including an invasive background investigation and officials that seemed determined to deny her acceptance to the university by any means available. Once she finally arrived, Early said she faced isolation and loneliness in her classes, but she excelled in her studies and finished her degree the following year.

Mary Frances Early

After graduation, she began teaching at the then newly integrated Atlanta Public Schools, continuing her work to transform the state’s education system during the era of the Civil Rights Movement.

She went on to lead an accomplished career, spending decades teaching music to Georgia students. In 1981, she became the first African-American elected president of the Georgia Music Educators Association. She retired from working in the public school system in 1994, and later taught music at Morehouse and Spelman colleges and served as chair of the music department at Clark Atlanta University. Early is also a recipient of the prestigious UGA President’s Medal, an honor recognizing extraordinary contributions of those who have impacted the quality of life for Georgia citizens.

On the subject of Dr. King, Early acknowledged the influence he had on her own life, and encouraged those in attendance to continue to follow his example and pursue his principles.

“Young people, there are no unreachable goals,” she continued. “You are our hope for the world. You know that after Dr. King’s I have a Dream speech, he only lived for five more years because he was assassinated in 1968. Did his dream die with him? No. It’s still alive, and we of the older generation pass the torch on to you and ask you to take up that mantle and help make Dr. King’s dream come true.”

Thursday’s ceremony began with a performance from the KSU Gospel Choir and remarks from KSU President Pamela Whitten, who welcomed and introduced Early to a large crowd at the University’s Convocation Center.

“Certainly, the words and actions of Dr. King and others who helped lead the Civil Rights Movement resulted in progress during the course of Dr. King’s life and after, and today’s speaker, Mary Frances Early, can be counted among those who changed the course of the state of Georgia as well as the nation,” said Whitten.

KSU’s Martin Luther King Jr. ceremonies continue through Jan. 24 with several activities, including Six Voices: Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 60 Minutes, where six speakers will discuss the legacy of King and the Civil Rights Movement. You can find more information about this and other activities at mlkweek.kennesaw.edu.

– Thomas Dale

Photos by Lauren Kress


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu