The three sports figures received the National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award on Monday morning in Memphis, the city where King was assassinated in April 1968. The award pays tribute to athletes who have made significant contributions to civil and human rights, in the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.
Mays, Reed and Wilkens were honored with an on-court ceremony just before the start of the Grizzlies' game against the Chicago Bulls. The three also answered questions during a fan symposium.
Wilkens, who once played cards with King, said the award is "a huge honor because Dr. King stirred the conscience of a lot of people many years ago and certainly paved the way for civil rights."
Reed said King opened the door for more black Americans to go to college and perhaps make it to the next level as an athlete.
"Someone felt like this young man — well, I'm not quite a young man anymore — has made a contribution to making this world a better place to live," Reed said. "We all want to give back in some way."
Reed said he remembered listening to King speak and marveling at his ability as an orator.
"I wish I had the ability to do that, but I don't have that ability," Reed said. "My ability was in my legs and my arms and my eyes, and hopefully that was able to translate into inspiring some young people."
On Sunday, Reed and Wilkens visited the National Civil Rights Museum, which chronicles the civil rights movement from its beginning, through the tumultuous 1960s, and into present day. The museum is located on the site of the former Lorraine Motel, where King was fatally shot.
"Going through the museum stirred a lot of emotion because we were all aware of all the things that were happening at the time," Wilkens said. "You kind of relive history again ... I experienced a lot of those things that happened to people back then."
During the symposium, Mays said he learned from his father as a teenager to turn the other cheek and let his play on the field be his response to racism he encountered on the road.
"I had to go in all kinds of places to play baseball," Mays said of his time playing for the New York Giants' organization in Trenton, N.J. "I was thrown at many times, and I hit it over the fence many times. So, it was quiet. They didn't bother me too much."
Mays, a 24-time All-Star, heads a foundation that supports education for underprivileged youths. Wilkens is in the NBA Hall of Fame as a player and coach, and he also has a foundation that helps provides health care and educational services for young people.
Several dignitaries attended the symposium, including U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley.
During interviews, both Reed and Wilkens mentioned the election of President Barack Obama as a sign of progress made after King laid the foundation for civil rights for African-Americans.
"We need to keep in mind, especially for our young people, that the dream is happening, but we need to keep it going," Wilkens said.