ATLANTA — From their first day on campus, every one of them was told they were destined for greatness and could achieve no less. Despite dismal statistics labeling many young black men as drains on society, these men were different. They would be scholars and leaders, competitors and brothers.

They would become Morehouse Men — confident, committed and compelled to make a difference in the world — and will stand as a testament to the pride and achievement of all black men. On Sunday, they will be more than 540 strong, the largest graduating class in the 139-year history of Morehouse College, the nation’s only all-male historically black college.

What makes a Morehouse Man is difficult to describe, but undeniable. He will shake the hand of the person he meets, with a nod and an unwavering look in the eye. Any woman, 30 to 80, is addressed as “Ma’am.”

He is unapologetically black and proud, a trait manifested in alumni ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr., to actor Samuel L. Jackson. He speaks clearly and deliberately, with a confidence bordering on arrogance — a confidence cultivated by everyone on campus, from the cafeteria worker to his favorite teacher.

“The Morehouse Man is exceptional because the expectation at the school is that he is to walk on water, to turn water into wine,” 23-year-old Donald Washington, Jr., explained. “He is supposed to make the impossible possible.”

Washington is familiar with the impossible. As a high school junior, he was homeless, living in shelters around Washington, D.C., with his mother, Harriet Wilkes. He wasn’t thinking about going to college, but his mom encouraged him, telling him he had too much talent not to pursue his education.

It was the vice principal of his high school who gave him the idea to attend Morehouse.

“You look like a Morehouse Man to me,” Washington remembers him saying.

After three years at Montgomery College’s Rockville and Silver Spring, Md., campuses, he received a full scholarship and transferred to Morehouse, one of five historically black colleges comprising the Atlanta University Center. Sitting at a table wearing a blue suit, wire-framed glasses and a pensive look on his clean-shaven face, Washington admits he lacked confidence when he first arrived on campus.

“Before, I was the lamp under the table,” he said. “Now, I light up the whole room.”

The outlook for many of Washington’s peers outside of Morehouse’s campus could not be darker.

A series of recent studies with depressing results bemoaned the national plight of black men, including “Black Males Left Behind,” published this year. Among the findings in that survey, the relationship between lack of education and incarceration and unemployment rates is staggering, said co-author Stephen Raphael, associate professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

The study showed of black men between ages 18 and 25 who dropped out of high school, only 27 percent were employed in 2000, compared to 50 percent in 1970. Of that same pool, only 8 percent were incarcerated in 1970, versus 23 percent today.

And there was light, says the Morehouse motto.

“There is this beacon out there that says if you create a challenging, demanding, yet nurturing and supportive environment, if you show these young men the possibilities and you discipline them to realize those possibilities, you can turn these statistics about black men around,” said Michael Lomax, United Negro College Fund President and a 1968 graduate of Morehouse.

The high sense of self worth typical of Morehouse Men is largely attributed to the legacy of its longest-serving president, Benjamin Elijah Mays, who died in 1984. The son of sharecroppers from Ninety Six, S.C., he led the school and its thousands of students from 1940 to 1967.

In those 27 years, Mays transformed the humble college, which was founded by a Baptist minister soon after the Civil War to prepare recently freed black men for the ministry and teaching.

Today, Morehouse stands as the largest private, liberal arts college for men, and one of only four all-male colleges in the country.

Mays also transformed the student body, including King, Morehouse’s most famous alumnus — who graduated at age 16.

“I really had little idea of what my abilities were, but what Dr. Mays and other faculty members here led me and all of us to see was that simply because we came from small Southern towns didn’t mean we were not as intelligent, just not as well prepared — yet,” said Morehouse President Walter Massey, a 1958 alumnus who came to the college from Hattiesburg, Miss., in the 10th grade and returned to lead the school in 1995.

“He led us to believe that if you graduate from Morehouse, there’s nothing you can’t achieve,” Massey said.

The school’s reputation can create the myth of elitism, but three-fourths of students are on federal financial aid and the school recruits across a spectrum of academic and economic backgrounds, he added.

What matters is not privilege, but perseverance and passion. It is an approach that places students like economics major Chris Campbell and English major Alan Clarke, this year’s valedictorian, on the same campus.

Both Campbell and Clarke were star athletes in their respective hometowns of Gastonia, N.C., and Andover, Mass. And the two were eager to prove themselves as scholars.

“It was like they thought that’s the only way you can go to college, if you hoop or play football,” Campbell said. “A good job was working at Freightliner, driving trucks.”

Clarke said he was put in lower-level classes at the private high school he attended because he was an athlete.

“That limited my progress,” he said. “At Morehouse, the only ’x-factor’ was the amount of work I was willing to put in.”

Campbell’s father died before he was born, and his mother, Charlene, dropped out of school in the 11th grade. Most of his childhood friends now sell drugs. “We don’t have too much in common,” he smiled.

His background drove him to create the Cardinal Mentoring Program when he was a sophomore at Morehouse. This year, it will award four $1,000 college scholarships — including one named for his mother.

Campbell leaned in and his voice grew intent as he talked about the program he’ll leave in the hands of two students after he graduates to become a pharmaceutical salesman.

“I want to mentor the kid who’s like me, the kid who’s from the hood, from the ghetto, who has so much potential but because of their hood or where they grew up, they get complacent,” Campbell said. “I was here to say, ’I did it, you can do it.”’

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On the Net:

Morehouse College: http:www.morehouse.edu

Cardinal Mentoring Program: www.cardinalmentoring.org

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