Mays by Robert Templeton, 1969
|6th President of Morehouse College|
August 1, 1940 – July 1, 1967
|Preceded by||Charles D. Hubert
As Acting President
|Succeeded by||Hugh Morris Gloster|
|Born||Benjamin Elijah Mays
August 1, 1894
Ninety Six, South Carolina, U.S.
|Died||March 28, 1984
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
|Resting place||Morehouse College
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Ellen Harvin (m. 1920–1923)
Sadie Gray (m. 1926–1969)
|Alma mater||Bates College
University of Chicago
|Occupation||Civil rights activist|
|Known for||Civil rights movement|
Benjamin Elijah Mays (August 1, 1894 – March 28, 1984) was an American civil rights leader and activist. He served as the sixth President of Morehouse College from 1940 to 1967, and later presided over the Atlanta Board of Education from 1969 to 1978, where he initiated the desegregation of Atlanta, Georgia. Through rhetoric of nonviolence and civil resistance, Mays laid the intellectual foundations of the civil rights movement in the United States.
Born in Ninety Six, South Carolina, Mays graduated from Bates College and the University of Chicago. He began his career in activism as a pastor in the Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. After receiving his doctorate and a brief career as a professor, he was appointed as a dean at Howard University in 1934. Six years later, Mays was elected as the president of Morehouse College. His 27-year-tenure doubled enrollment, quadrupled the college's endowment, and established it as a leading liberal arts college in America. After stepping down in 1967, he continued his work by becoming a leader within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the World Council of Churches. Due to his public influence within the African American community was asked to serve as an adviser to U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter intermittently from 1961 to 1980. He was elected as the first African American President of the Atlanta Board of Education and in line with the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education Supreme Court order, desegregated the public school system of Atlanta.
His connection with fellow civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., spanned King's early days at Morehouse in 1944. King was known as Mays' "spiritual son" and Mays his "intellectual father." After King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, Mays gave the benediction. Upon the 1968 death of King, he was asked to give the eulogy where he described him in his "No Man is Ahead of His Time" speech.
Mays' contributions to the civil rights movement have had him hailed as the "movement’s intellectual conscience", and his presence in academia often lead him to be named the "Dean [or Schoolmaster] of the Movement". Historian Lawrence Carter described Mays as "one of the most significant figures in American history". Dozens of buildings, statues, awards, streets, scholarships, and fellowships have been named in his honor and as of January 2018, he has 56 honorary degrees. In 2002, he was listed among the 100 Greatest African Americans and is one of the 12 inductees in the Schomburg Honor Roll of Race Relations.
Benjamin Elijah Mays was born in August 1, 1894 in Epworth, South Carolina, in the small town of Ninety Six, South Carolina, the youngest of eight children; his parents were tenant farmers and former slaves. His mother, Louvenia Mays, was born one year after the Emancipation Proclamation, and given this history and its impact on the development of his parents, Mays’ childhood was instrumental in creating the political endeavors that he would later pursue. May's older sister, Susie, began to teach him how to read before his formal schooling commenced, which have him a year's growth in reading compared to the other students in his primary schools prompting school officials to cite him as "destined for greatness." As a child he went by the nickname "Bennie."
When he was little, a white mob approached his home on horseback with guns drawn, and forced his father, Hezekiah Mays, to remove his hat and bow before them repeatedly. These group of men were associated with the Phoenix Election Riot which began four years after his birth. He grew up in an area where lynching was commonplace and was forced into segregated areas around his community. The traumatic event served as motivation for him to "dedicate his life to helping the black race."
His older sister, Susie, taught him how to read and write before he began formal schooling. When he was a child, he excelled in his studies and had "an insatiable desire to get an education." During his childhood, he was often in conflict with his father, who thought his time would be better utilized working on the family's farm. His mother, was a constant support mechanism in his life but could not read or write. When Mays was nine-years-old he gave his first speech at Old Mount Zion Baptist Church to positive reception.
He attended the Brick House School in Epworth, a Baptist-sponsored school. In 1911, as a 7th grader, Mays wanted to attend the University of Chicago for his doctorate but was afraid that his race would hinder is progress at the institution. Mays left Epworth to attend the High School Department at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina, eventually graduating as Valedictorian at the age of 22, in 1916, in three years.
After spending a year at Virginia Union University, Mays grew weary of the segregated south and needed a place that ensured physical and emotional safety for him to pursue his studies. Professors at his university spoke highly of a small liberal arts college in Lewiston, Maine called Bates College, saying it provided "the best education available for an ambitious man like him." Mays' personal attraction to the college was tied to the college's debate team (the Brooks Quimby Debate Council), which at the time was considered the best in the country, and his ability to have the "same opportunity to excel as an equal with other students."
He moved north to attend Bates in 1917. He was one of few black students at Bates, but he encountered little racial prejudice at the college and felt as through he was an equal. He said, of his time at Bates, "For the first time...I felt at home in the universe." While at Bates, he was captain of the debate team and played on the football team. In his sophomore year he became captain of the Bates Forum and served as the Class Day Speaker. He paid for his studies at the college by working several odd jobs and with a scholarship. During his time the college he was a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity down in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from the college in 1920, with a B.A., as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate. When interviewed about his time at the college he stated: "through contemplative experience, I had finally dismissed from my mind for all time the myth of the inherent inferiority of Negroes and the inherent superiority of all whites."
Shortly after graduating from Bates, he married his first wife, Ellen Edith Harvin, on July 31, 1920 in Elizabeth City County, Virginia. The two met when Mays was still in South Carolina and wrote to each other frequently. She was a home economics teacher at a local college before she died after a brief illness two years after they married at age 28.
On January 3, 1921, he then entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student, earning an M.A. in 1925. During his graduate school years, he was once driven out of a dining car for being black, an event he dealt with by suing the Southern Rail Way Company in 1942. After he graduated he moved to Atlanta, Georgia to become an ordained a Baptist minister in 1922 and accepted a pastorate at the Shiloh Baptist Church. With his spare time he taught higher level mathematics at the local Morehouse College in from 1921 to 1924. He was the first person to teach calculus at the college, and after one year of instruction was promoted to teach in religious studies.
From 1925 to 1926, he occupied himself with another teaching position, this time instructing English at South Carolina State College. While at South Carolina State College, he met his second wife, Sadie Mays, another graduate of the University of Chicago. The couple married on August 9, 1926. After their marriage, they moved to Tampa, Florida to serve with the Tampa National Urban League from 1926 to 1928. They moved because the college had a rule that married couples could not teach on the same faculty. In 1928, he worked as the national student secretary of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) until 1930. A couple of months later, he was asked to serve as the director of Study of Black Churches in the United States by the Institute of Social and Religious Research of New York.
In 1932, Mays returned to the University of Chicago with the intent of completing a Ph.D. in line with what was asked by the Institute of Social and Religious Research of New York. After some deliberation between fields of studies he could pursue a doctorate in he eventually decided to study religion and not mathematics or philosophy. He enrolled at the college's School of Religion and worked as a Pullman porter to finance his studies. At the time the Pullman porter's were segregated from the whites they were serving, until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1950. Mays 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. His time at the college was ripe with racial tensions, however, with his academic prowess questioned by the white students often, especially in social settings. In 1933, he wrote his first book was published, The Negro's Church with Joseph Nicholson. This was the first sociological study of the black church in the United States. In 1935, he was awarded a doctorate from the university.
A year before receiving his doctorate, he was asked to serve as a dean at Howard University in Washington, D.C.. In 1934, he accepted the offer and became the Dean of the School of Religion of Howard University. His appointment brought a large wave of investments and donations from outside academics for the school. Mays went on to increase enrollment, develop regular tin program for students and faculty, expanded faculty, and establish an endowment. In 1938, he published his second book, The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature.
During his six years as dean, Mays traveled to India, where, at the urging of Howard Thurman, a fellow professor at Howard, he spoke at some length with Mahatma Gandhi. Numerous publications Mays has produced reference this experience as a contributing factor to his civil rights ideology and practice. Mays left Howard University in 1940, and was honored with the renaming of the newly constructed home of the divinity school to "Benjamin Mays Hall." It was at Howard where he gained a reputation as an "effective administrator" and national personality.
On August 1, 1940, Mays was appointed the sixth president of Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia. After accepting the position, he was faced with a reality of low faculty and student morale, and was considered the "weakest link in the Atlanta University System." When he took over as president, the school was in terrible financial straits, and they had not had sound leadership since Dr. John Hope was president in the early 1900s. For those reasons, Mays accepted the job offer, and he took it as his duty to revive Morehouse. Soon after primary advancements were made with the college, World War II broke out and many students were drafted for military service. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Morehouse approached Mays and requested the school be shut down for the remainder of the war, which prompted Mays to lash out and reject his proposition publicly. Mays counter-proposal was to open the school to younger students who were ineligible to be drafted. He moved to improve the academic quality of the students by lowering admissions, and reforming the academic platform. College faculty often were encouraged to befriend students and provided them with guidance in a tumultuous social scene at the time.
In 1947, his alma mater, Bates College, extended him an honorary doctorate for his work advancing civil rights. Three years later the University of Chicago, his other alma mater, awarded him the "Alumnus of the Year" on October 19, 1949. Although he was a college president, he was not allowed to vote in the 1950s until he was 52 years old. Pulpit, a magazine focusing on black religious preachers, ranked him among the top 20 preachers in America in 1954. The same year he was one of the "Top Ten Most Powerful Negros" in the nation according to black magazine, Our World.
In 1933, Morehouse was doing so poorly financially that it had allowed Atlanta University to take over its financial direction and budget. Within two years of his presidency, Mays was so successful that he was able to regain control of Morehouse's finances. Mays had a few goals going into his presidency that he believed he must accomplish. At the top of his list was the need to hire more teachers, and to pay those teachers a better salary. To do that, Mays sought to be more strict in the collection of student fees, and he wanted to increase Morehouse's endowment from $1,114,000. He more than quadrupled the endowment that he inherited by the end of his 27-year tenure.
All of Mays' achievements and goals for Morehouse College went hand in hand with one another. To manufacture the graduates he so desired, he needed financial security and a good faculty. Thus, while maintaining financial security at Morehouse, he also desired and succeeded at continuing the esteemed tradition of producing Morehouse Men. He asserted that a Morehouse Man was a highly educated and dedicated to service black professional. Specifically, Mays wanted his Morehouse Men to be physicians, lawyers, and ministers.
In his first speech to an incoming freshman class in 1940, he said, "If Morehouse is to continue to be great; it must continue to produce outstanding personalities." However, it was not enough for his students to be successful professionals. In addition to their success, he believed that they must be Christians who gave back to the black community. Over Mays' twenty-seven years leading Morehouse, the enrollment increased 169%, from 238 to almost a thousand students, furthered the motivation for graduates to pursue graduate studies, and increased the endowment. Many associated with the college referenced him as a "builder of men."
In 1966, as president, Mays was invited to sit at a Atlanta Braves baseball game as a guest-of-honor by Jackie Robinson when the sports franchise moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. Robinson invited Mays because of his efforts to integrate the baseball team in Atlanta. Robinson said of Mays: "When we first moved here it was the first team of major league caliber to ever move this far south to play baseball. And of course [Mays] was one of the guys, one of the persons really that made things a lot easier for myself and some of the other black ball players."
Mays had a distinctive personality and style. He was known as being very demanding yet understanding. The introduction to his speech compilation at Morehouse notes him with the following:
In physical stature Mays stood six feet tall, but appeared taller because of his erect posture--a habit he developed during his youth to walk around with dignity and pride; he weighted approximately 180 pounds and had a full head of iron-grey air with a contrasting dark complexion. His distinctive physical appearance commented his towering intellectual stature. When Mays walked into a room eye were likely to focus in his direction. His mere physical presence attracted attention.
He earned a reputation for being a penny-pincher and demanded tuition fees on time, which earned him the nickname "Buck Bennie;" the student newspaper occasionally ran headlines such as "Buck Bennie Rides Again," during the first couple of years of his Morehouse presidency. However, he often helped students pay their bills by offering work or finding it around campus. He would often write to the employers of the college's graduates to ask them how the recent grads were doing as a way to measure the Morehouse education.
As president he was in great demand as a public speaker. He met hundreds of national and international leaders and served as a trusted advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. He was appointed by President Truman to the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth. When Pope John XXIII died in 1963, President Kennedy sent Mays and his Vice President to represent the United States at the funeral in Rome, Italy.
During the Kennedy administration, southern members of the Senate blocked Mays’ appointment to the United States Civil Rights Commission by accusing him of being a Communist. Mays denied the charges. His relationship with President Jimmy Carter was marked with "warmth" and "hospitality." Carter visited Mays' home in Atlanta, and Mays in turn campaigned for Carter during his 1976 and 1980 presidential runs. Carter wrote to Mays on a monthly basis during his presidency asking him about "humans rights, international affairs, and discrimination."
Mays first became associated with Martin Luther King Jr. during his time as a student at Morehouse College. While King was a student from 1944 to 1948 he often went to Morehouse's chapel to hear Mays preach. After the sermons, King would run up to Mays and engage with him about the ideas he presented often following him into his office, hours after the sermon ended. He was also a friend of Martin Luther King Jr.'s father, Martin Luther King Sr. and often participated with him religious organizations in Atlanta. Mays dined at the King's homes every so often and spoke with the young Martin Luther King Jr. about his career prospects and ambitions. His mother, Alberta Williams King said Mays was a "great influence on Martin Luther King Jr.," "[an] example of what kind of minister Martin could become," and "possessor of great moral principles."
While King was only his 20s, Mays helped him assume to responsibility of his actions in the civil rights rallies he participated in. King needed Mays "for spiritual support as he faced the burden of being perceived as the personification of black America’s hopes and dreams, Iit was Mays who held the job as King’s consigliere over the next fourteen years as the death threats against him grew more ominous and the public battles more dangerous."
After King gained national attention as a consequence of his 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, he began to refer to Mays as his "spiritual and intellectual mentor", which enhanced the friendship they had and prompted Mays to be more involved with King's civil rights endeavors. Mays revered him as his "spiritual son". Mays gave the benediction at the close of the official program of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.
|No Man Is Ahead of His Time - Dr. Benjamin E. May's delivers Dr. King's Eulogy Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, April 9, 1968|
The two developed a close relationship that continued until King's assassination by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968. King and Mays promised each other that whoever outlived the other would deliver the eulogy at the other's funeral.
On April 9, 1968, Mays delivered a eulogy that would later be known as the "No Man is Ahead of His Time" speech. He noted King's time in history to an estimated 150,000 mourners by stating in his most famous passage:
If Jesus was called to preach the Gospel to the poor, Martin Luther was called to give dignity to the common man. If a prophet is one who interprets in clear and intelligible language the will of God, Martin Luther King Jr. fits that designation. If a prophet is one who does not seek popular causes to espouse, but rather the causes he thinks are right, Martin Luther qualified on that score.
No! He was not ahead of his time. No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else’s time. Jesus had to respond to the call of God in the first century A.D., and not in the 20th century. He had but one life to live. He couldn’t wait.
After the death of King, Mays drew controversy when his sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church urged an audience of mostly white people, "not to dishonor [King’s] name by trying to solve our problems through rioting in the streets. If they could turn their sorrow into hope for the future and use their outrage to invigorate a peaceful climb to the mountaintop, Martin Luther King Jr. will have died a redemptive death from which all mankind will benefit.”
Mays began teaching again, and served as a private advisor to the president of Michigan State University and went on to publish Disturbed About Man, a collection of his sermons at Morehouse College. His publications described his early life in South Carolina and the racial tensions he had to overcome. During this time he began to give speeches and commencement addresses at various intuitions to spread both religious and racial tolerance. He ended his social tours in the early 1980s, giving a total of 250 commencement addresses at colleges, universities, and schools. In 1978, the U.S. Department of Education granted him the Distinguished Educator Award and the South Carolina State House hung a commissioned portrait of him in its chamber. These awards from South Carolina were deeply appreciated by Mays as he left the state in fear of his life and this he loved. During the social transformation of the South in the 1970s, Mays' legacy in his birthplace was solidified and he took not he title of "the native son".
At age seventy-five, Mays was elected president of the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education, where he supervised the peaceful desegregation of Atlanta's public schools as a consequence of the 1970 federal court order. Members of the board argued that since the bussing was not a part of their system they did not have to create one for desegregation; however, the idea was shot down by Mays, who cited the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education Supreme Court decision. It was during this time that Mays ordered the city to create bus routes to cater to African-American neighborhoods. The board did not support the decision and asked the Georgia's Attorney General, Arthur K. Bolton, for a review of the case. Bolton brought the city government together with the board and with Mays created what was known as the Atlanta Compromise Plan.
His "commanding and demanding personality" was largely credited for the exponential levels of desegregation in Atlanta. The Atlanta Compromise Plan prompted Mays to advocate for the administration of the plan to be "colorless", that is to say, black and white students were transported on the same routes, in the same buses. This was named the "Majority to Minority" volunteer plan, better known as the "M to M" plan. The plan also allowed each student whose race was in the minority to transfer to a school that had the majority race; this was advantageous to the back populace of Atlanta. The program was later known as the "Volunteer Transfer Program" or VTP, and was ministered by the federal courts and the board. On July 28, 1974, Mays signed the alignment order declaring that the Atlanta School System was unitary.
On July 1, 1973, Mays appointed Alonzo Crim as the first African-American superintendent of schools, which was met with backlash form the other board members and city officials. He used his power and influence in Atlanta to "shield" Crim from the criticism and allowed him the opportunity to run the school system. During the later part of his tenure he greatly expanded the jurisdiction of the board and was honored by the naming of a street in his honor upon his retirement in 1981. Near the end of his tenure, the board voted to name a newly constructed school after Mays; Mays High School was constructed on February 10, 1985, and was open to students of all races. He retired from the board in 1981. The Atlanta Board of Education had a rule against naming buildings after people unless they had been deceased for two years; they waived it for Mays; he visited the school frequently when it was being built. He is widely credited as the most influential figure in the desegregation of Atlanta, Georgia.
Mays died in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 28, 1984. He was entombed on the campus of Morehouse College. His wife Sadie is entombed beside him. Morehouse College established the Benjamin E. Mays Scholarship shortly after his death.
Boston University professor Lawrence Carter described Mays as "one of the most significant figures in American history." Andrew Young said of Mays: "if there hadn’t of been [sic] a Benjamin Mays there would not have been a Martin Luther King Jr. He was very much a product of Dr. Mays religious thinking." He was known to Dillard University president Samuel Dubose Cook as "[one of the] great architects of the civil rights movement. Not only in training individuals but in writing his books, leadership in churches, as a pastor, college president. He set the standard. And he was uncompromising." His childhood home was listed as a State Historic Site by the government of South Carolina, and was referred to as an "education icon" by the South Carolina Radio Network in 2011.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Benjamin Mays on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. He was elected to the Schomburg Honor Roll of Race Relations along with "only a dozen major leaders to be so honored." In 2011, Wiliams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, introduced the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship at Williams College.
The National School Boards Association created the Benjamin Elijah Mays Lifetime Achievement Award for "an individual who—during his or her lifetime—has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to the educational needs of urban school children through his or her service as a local school board member."
Bates College's highest alumni distinction is known as the Benjamin E. Mays Medal and is reserved for "the alumna or alumnus who has performed distinguished service to the larger (worldwide) community and been deemed a Bates College graduate of outstanding accomplishment." The inaugural winner was Mays himself. The college established the Benjamin E. Mays Distinguished Professorship in 1985.
Upon his death Mays was designated Phi Beta Kappa, Delta Sigma Rho, Delta Theta Chi, Omega Psi Phi. In 1984, he was inducted in the South Carolina Hall of Fame. Mays has received more than 200 awards for his service in the civil rights movements.
Among his various awards, the most prominent are the following:
After Mays stepped down from the Atlanta Board of Education presidency in 1981, a petition was sent to the desk of U.S. President Ronald Reagan requesting that Mays be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but it was turned down. Georgian representative John Lewis proposed a bill in January 1993 that would commemorate Mays on a federal stamp and requested that Mays be given the Medal of Freedom posthumously. The request was sent to U.S. President Bill Clinton but his time as president ended before he could address the request. A request was sent once again to U.S. President George Bush by Georgian representatives Max Cleland and Zell Miller which passed both houses of Congress but has yet to be signed by a U.S. president. The petition was sent once more in 2012 to U.S. President Barack Obama, yet failed to be awarded.
Due to his stature in academia he was frequently awarded honorary degreess from universities. He was awarded 40 of them during his lifetime and as of April 2017, he has received 56 honorary degrees. Among the 56 include degrees from the following universities:
Mays has been the subject or inspiration of memorials, and the eponym of dozens of buildings, schools, streets, and halls. Although he through his life had been appreciative of all of them, he "[was] reported to have said he was moved most deeply when a small black church in Ninety Six, South Carolina, renamed itself Mays United Methodist Church. There are numerous memorials to Mays in the United States, including:
He published two autobiographies, Born to Rebel (1971), and Lord, the People Have Driven Me On (1981). In 1982, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As of May 2016, Mays has published nearly 2000 articles and nine books. His sermons frequently spoke on the topics of stewardship, responsibility and engagement.
A partial bibliography includes:
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