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Benjamin Mays (1895–1984)

The Formative Years, Early Religious Scholarship, The Howard Years, Morehouse College, The Morehouse Mentor

Benjamin Elijah Mays was born to former slaves Hezekiah and Louvenia (Carter) Mays in Epworth, Greenwood County, South Carolina. The youngest of eight children, he became a theologian, theoretician, orator, author, college president, civil rights activist, and school board president. Casting himself as a "rebel," he greatly influenced the country and the world with his ideals and activities.

The Formative Years

The 1890s was an especially difficult period for blacks as whites in the South were angry in the aftermath of Reconstruction: lynchings and violence were common. Born on an isolated cotton farm, Mays's earliest recollections were of the Phoenix Riots in Greenwood County during November 1898 in which several black people were lynched. He wrote in his autobiography, "That mob is my earliest memory" (p. 1). Mays's intellectual prowess became known in church and school. He, however, attended the Brickhouse School only from November to February as he was needed to help his sharecropping family bring in the harvest. In 1911 he abandoned the farm to enroll in the High School Department of South Carolina State College, graduating as valedictorian at age twenty-one in 1916.

Following one year of study at Virginia Union University, Mays tired of the bitter racial climate in the South, and gained admission to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He worked as a Pullman porter before winning scholarships. Encouraged by the relatively liberal racial climate of New England, Mays flourished. He graduated from Bates with honors in 1920 and became committed to a life of teaching and learning. After one year of sampling assorted graduate courses at the University of Chicago, Mays taught psychology, math, and religion at Morehouse College in Atlanta from 1921 to 1923. While in Atlanta, he was ordained a Baptist minister in 1922. He returned to the University of Chicago's School of Religion and completed a master's degree in New Testament Studies in 1925.

Mays returned to teach English at South Carolina State College for a year. Hoping to make a difference in the lives of deprived black people, he then moved, with his new wife Sadie Gray, to the Urban League in Tampa, Florida for two years. Working with his wife, a case worker, his title at the Urban League was executive secretary of the Family Service Association. After two years, he accepted a position as student secretary of the YMCA in Atlanta, where he hoped to once again influence the larger community.

In 1930, the Institute of Social and Religious Research, funded by the Rockefeller family, embarked on the most ambitious study to date on the black church and its influence on the African-American population. Mays and Joseph W. Nicholson, a minister in the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, conducted a fourteen-month study of 691 churches in 12 large cities. That study would establish Mays as an important scholar and "rebel" theoretician.

Early Religious Scholarship

The result of the Mays/Nicholson collaboration was published in 1933 as the iconoclastic work The Negro's Church, which was premised upon the church's importance at the center of black culture and social life. The authors argued that the church belonged to the Negro and provided a place of refuge, expression, democracy, fellowship, and freedom surrounded by the lack of all those things elsewhere. They spoke of the "genius" of the black church. Mays (and Nicholson), however, also found that it possessed significant constraints.

Throughout the work, the authors explored sensitive and rarely addressed issues such as denominational rivalry, misplaced ministerial ambition, poor theological training, irrelevant sermon content, unnecessary emotionalism, appeals to fear, and finally the "overchurching" of the Negro. The provocative work concluded that "analysis reveals that the status of the Negro church is in part the result of the failure of American Christianity in the realm of race-relation" (p. 278).

This critique, followed by a companion book, The Negro's God: As Reflected in His Literature (1938), catapulted Mays to a new level of scholarship.

The Howard Years

In 1932 Mays had returned to the University of Chicago to complete his doctorate in three years. One year before completing the doctorate, Mordecai Johnson, the respected president of Howard University in Washington, D.C., persuaded Mays to assume the deanship at Howard's School of Religion. From 1934 to 1940 Mays worked to elevate that department to one of national prominence. Increased enrollment, enriched curriculum, a better-credentialed faculty, higher revenues, and improvements to the physical plant and library gained the department a Class "A" rating from the American Association of Theological Schools and national attention for Mays.

During the Howard years, Mays traveled widely, expanding his network of colleagues and friends, working to strengthen other black colleges, and most importantly developing his version of a liberation theology. Mid-1930s visits to Europe, China, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent provided Mays with a startling look at poverty, hatred, oppression, racism, and caste. His personal audience with Mahatma Gandhi, whom he already admired, reinforced his belief in nonviolence as an "active force" for social change. Mays emerged from these experiences as one of the most influential black men in the South. In early 1940, banker and Morehouse trustee John Wheeler was dispatched by the Board of Trustees to recruit Mays for the presidency of the school. Reluctant to leave Howard, Mays spent months seeking the advice of leading educators. With the blessing of Mordecai Johnson he became president of Morehouse on August 1, 1940.

Morehouse College

Benjamin Mays became the sixth president of Morehouse College, which would be his home base for the next twenty-seven years. A man of great faith and vision, Mays was also politically astute. He understood that the plight of black people had always been at the center of the social, political, economic, and cultural life of the South and the nation. He sensed that Morehouse College could and would play an important role in the lives of black America, and ultimately the country. Although its student body was relatively small and resources meager, the school was situated in an important place at an important time.

By 1940 Morehouse College was well established among the nation's historically black colleges. The notion of an intellectually capable "Morehouse Man" was emergent. Morale problems had, however, surfaced as the school was seen by students and alumni as falling behind the other black colleges of Atlanta. Between 1930 and 1940 the faculty at Atlanta University increased by 220 percent and the faculty at Spelman increased by 78 percent, while Morehouse's faculty had decreased by 16 percent. Morehouse students were taught by Atlanta University and Spelman faculty. In addition, uncollected tuition and a feeble endowment inhibited expansion.

As president, Mays immediately began exhorting alumni to increase contributions. Secondly, he appealed for contributions from philanthropic foundations and friends of the college. Most importantly, he began aggressively collecting the considerable tuition arrears from students. Students were not allowed to register for classes, obtain transcripts, or graduate until debts were cleared. Those efforts earned Mays the nickname "Buck Benny" around the campus. His obsession with quality faculty, previously noted during his years at Howard, quickly became evident at Morehouse.

He searched widely for faculty with doctorates. Despite social and residential problems in rigidly segregated Atlanta, white professors were welcomed by Mays. Where high-quality professors could not be hired, Mays offered existing faculty financial support to seek higher degrees.

During Mays's presidency, the campus land area increased from 10.7 to 20.2 acres. New buildings included five small dormitories housing 115 men, a large dormitory housing 120 men, a physical educational and health building, an infirmary, a dining hall, a small academic building, a meditation chapel, a dormitory for students enrolled in the Morehouse School of Religion, a music studio, and three faculty apartments.

The Morehouse Mentor

Beyond those accomplishments, Benjamin Mays is far better known for his spiritual guidance and intellectual leadership. Reared in an environment of hatred, Mays could talk of uplift because he lived it. The testimony of former students and public figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, Lerone Bennett and many others suggests that his students listened to his exhortations.

Leadership and the pursuit of further education became watchwords at Morehouse. Its students became distinguished by their accomplishments after graduation. By the mid-1960s more that half the school's graduates had entered graduate or professional schools; of its graduates, 118 had earned Ph.D.s, and by 1967, more than 300 Morehouse graduates earned M.D. and D.D.S. degrees. By that time Morehouse graduates held teaching or administrative positions at 58 black and 22 white institutions of higher learning. Twenty-one institutions of higher learning had Morehouse graduates as president. Between 1945 and 1967 Morehouse ranked second among Georgia institutions in the production of Woodrow Wilson Fellows. Mays's figures also reveal a large number of Morehouse graduates occupying high administrative positions in school districts scattered around the country.

Mays was particularly proud of the School of Religion, where he invested significant personal attention. Several of its graduates, including Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Thurman, Dillard H. Brown, Thomas Kilgore, and George Kelsey, have been singled out for high honors and distinction.

With great pride, Mays identified the group of Morehouse graduates who occupied high profile positions in the world of politics, law, and business. Widely known scholars and writers such as Lerone Bennett Jr., James Birnie, Benjamin Brawley, Michael Lomax, and Ira Reid inspired Mays to petition for the establishment a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at the college which was granted in 1967.

No discussion of Mays at Morehouse would be complete without mention of chapel. Chapel was a longstanding tradition at Morehouse, where students were required to attend every day except Saturday. Mays used chapel to build community and expand learning outside the classroom. Martin Luther King Jr. recalled chapel and Mays' motivational talks as among his most inspirational college experiences.

Philosopher and Liberation Theologian

Mays developed a religious philosophy of morality, justice, and humanity rooted in the quest for freedom. While the term liberation theology perhaps belongs to a later time period, it is nevertheless applicable to Mays's views.

Beyond an individual morality, Mays reflected on the wider role of the black church in the lives of its people, concluding that the church must go beyond providing comfort, freedom of expression, and socializing. It must engage a social consciousness offering visions of freedom, empowerment, and equality. It must go beyond the personal and into the political.

Stephen Preskill (1996) sees Mays' views as the ideological antecedent of the liberatory views of Cornel West, a contemporary African-American scholar-activist and social critic. He examines three propositions advanced by West: (1) human discernment, or understanding the present from a social analysis of the past, more specifically understanding how to practice democracy in a racist society; (2) human connection, embracing the lived concrete realities of oppressed people; and (3) human hypocrisy, exposing the contradictions between deeds and words. In all cases Preskill traces West's three propositions to Mays' affirmation of the common people's right to make change.

Mays's nascent liberation theology is outlined in his little-known work The Negro's God: As Reflectedin His Literature (1938). In this study Mays explores portrayals of God in a wide variety of biblical, classical, political, and sociological literature. He identifies salient themes recurring in the literature, arguing that these themes resonate with and contribute to the prevailing culture of African Americans. Mays clusters and describes Negro views about God into three categories: traditional biblical themes; justice and equality; and social change.

Mays retired from Morehouse in 1967. By then the modern civil rights movement was well under way. Mays remained a quiet mentor, staying in touch and offering advice to his former students who were leading the movement. Additionally, he sat on many committees and commissions, including the Ford Foundation and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, advising presidents, governors, and policymakers on civil rights matters.

Upon the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Mays concluded his eulogy for his former student and long-standing friend by saying, "If physical death was the price he had to pay to rid America of prejudice and injustice, nothing could be more redemptive."

His last great task was to serve the city he always saw as crucial in American race relations. He joined the Atlanta School Board of Education, becoming its first black president, from 1969 through 1981. In his last years, Mays continued to advise leaders from politics and business on matters of race. He served as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and received forty-three honorary degrees (including honorary doctorates from Harvard and Brandeis), the Dorie Miller Medal of Honor, and the Older Citizen Award.


COLSTON, FREDDIE C. 1993. "Dr. Benjamin E. Mays: His Impact as Spiritual and Intellectual Mentor of Martin Luther King Jr." The Black Scholar 23 (2):6–15.

LOGAN, RAYFORD W. 1965. The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. New York: Macmillan.

MAYS, BENJAMIN E. 1971. Born to Rebel: An Autobiography. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

MAYS, BENJAMIN E. 1968. The Negro's God: As Reflected in His Literature (1938). New York: Atheneum.

MAYS, BENJAMIN E., and NICHOLSON, JOSEPH WILLIAM. 1969. The Negro's Church (1933). New York: Negro Universities Press.

PRESKILL, STEPHEN. 1996. "Combative Sprirituality and the Life of Benjamin E. Mays." Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 19 (4):404–416.


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