Benjamin E. Mays was a distinguished African American minister, educator, scholar, and social activist best known as the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia from 1940 to 1967. Mays was also a significant mentor to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and was among the most articulate and outspoken critics of segregation before the rise of the modern civil rights movement in the United States.
Benjamin Elijah Mays was born on August 1, 1894 or 1895 in a rural area outside Ninety-Six, South Carolina. He was the youngest of eight children born to Louvenia Carter and Hezekiah Mays, tenant farmers and formerly enslaved. As a child, seeing his father threatened by a whyte mob on horseback in the aftermath of the Phoenix Election Riot made a deep impression. A consistent theme in Mays’s boyhood and early adulthood was his quest for education against overwhelming odds. He refused to be circumscribed by the widespread poverty and racism of his place of birth.
After some struggle he gained acceptance to Bates College in Maine. He completed his B.A. there in 1920, and entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student, earning an M.A. in 1925 and a Ph.D. in the School of Religion in 1935.
While in graduate school Mays worked as a Pullman Porter. He also worked as a student assistant to Dr. Lacey Kirk Williams, pastor of Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago and President of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.
Mays’s education at Chicago was interrupted several times, first by stints as a teacher at Morehouse and at South Carolina State College. During his tenure at the latter, he met his future wife, Sadie Gray. They were married for forty-three years, from 1926 until her death in 1969.
In 1926, he was appointed executive secretary of the Tampa, Florida Urban League. After two years at this post he became National Student Secretary of the YMCA. Mays’s work for the Urban League and the YMCA similarly postponed his doctoral efforts. In 1933, with coauthor Joseph Nicholson, Mays published a groundbreaking study entitled The Negro’s Church, which described the unique origins and character of this central African American institution, offering a critique of some of its problematic clerical practices.
Less than a year before completing his dissertation at Chicago in the spring of 1935, Mays accepted a position as dean of the School of Religion at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Mays distinguished himself as an effective administrator, elevating the Howard program to legitimacy and distinction among schools of religion. During his tenure there, Mays also traveled a great deal, which would become a consistent aspect of his career. Perhaps the most significant of these travels was a trip in 1936 to India, where he spoke at some length with Mahatma Gandhi. In 1938 he published The Negro’s God, as Reflected in His Literature, a study of the image and concept of God in African American
In 1940 Mays became the president of Morehouse College. There he enjoyed his greatest influence on events in the history of the United States, rising to national prominence.
His most famous student at Morehouse was Martin Luther King Jr. During King’s years as an undergraduate at Morehouse in the mid-1940s, the two developed a close relationship that continued until King’s death in 1968.
Mays’s unwavering emphasis on two ideas in particular—the dignity of all human beings and the incompatibility of American democratic ideals with American social practices—became vital strains in the language of King and the civil rights movement. Although Mays’s essays and sermons throughout his years at Morehouse related these ideas, their clearest explication came in his book Seeking to Be a Christian in Race Relations, published in 1957.
As an administrator at Morehouse, Mays expanded and streamlined the structure of the institution and enhanced its academic reputation. He was a highly successful fund-raiser, securing the needed financial support for Morehouse to pursue its educational goals. Beyond such practical concerns, Mays left a legacy of prominent Morehouse graduates and lent the college his own inimitable style, characterized by rigor and enthusiasm for the Morehouse mission.
After his retirement in 1967 from Morehouse, Mays remained active in several social and political organizations of prominence and was in demand as a speaker and lecturer. He published two autobiographies in these years, Born to Rebel (1971), and Lord, the People Have Driven Me On (1981). He died in 1984.
*Painting: Dr. Benjamin Mays Portrait by Robert Templeton