1894-1984 Benjamin E. Mays was a pastor, a passionate advocate of education, and an inspirational leader in the modern Civil Rights Movement. As the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta for 21 years, he guided the institution as it rose to the top ranks of the nations historically black colleges.
God and Education
Mays was born in South Carolina on August 1, 1894, outside a town in Greenwood County with the unlikely name of Ninety Six. He was the youngest child of Hezekiah Mays and Louvenia Carter, freed slaves who became tenant farmers. As was typical for black children in the south at that time, his school year was very short, about four months, to prevent education from interfering with work in the fields. Over the strenuous objections of his father, Mays left home at age 16 in order to attend a high school run by the South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. Mays distinguished himself by being named valedictorian of the 1914 graduating class.
From Orangeburg, Mays went on to another historically black institution, Virginia Union University in Richmond, and then on to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. With its desegregated campus, far from the south. Bates vastly expanded Mays’ social and intellectual horizons. Finding himself equal to the academic challenges, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1920 at the age of 26.
Moved by strong religious feelings he had learned from his mother, Mays then enrolled at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. But by the end of the first year, his finances had deteriorated and he was forced to take a leave of absence and get a job. Fortunately, the president of Morehouse College, John Hope, offered him a position teaching mathematics and psychology. Mays accepted and moved to Atlanta. He also found a position as pastor of a small Atlanta congregation, and met and married Ellen Harvin. But tragically, she died in childbirth in 1923.
Mays returned to Chicago the following year, and in 1925, completed work on his Divinity School master’s thesis entitled Pagan Survivals in Christianity Mays planned to continue his studies toward a Ph.D., but once more was compelled by circumstances to return to teaching, this time at his old alma mater, South Carolina State. Soon after assuming his new position, Mays married Sadie Gray who was also a teacher at the college. Unfortunately, this violated institutional policy, and the couple was informed that one of them would have to resign. After searching in vain for new academic positions, Mays and his wife moved to Tampa, Florida, and became social workers for the Urban League. In 1928, they moved back to Atlanta to perform similar work with the YMCA.
In 1930, Mays was awarded a fellowship by a Rockefeller Foundation-supported organization known as the Institute for Social Religious Research to conduct a study of African American churches. He spent three years on the project, publishing the results m 1933, and was then able to return to Chicago and complete his Ph.D. His dissertation was later published under the title The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature.
Opportunity in Academia
Mays was offered a position as dean in the School of Religion by Howard University’s president, Modecai Johnson, in 1934. He seized the opportunity, and prospered in the Washington, DC-based position for several years. Then, in 1940, Mays’ career took a bigger leap: he was named president of Morehouse College.
When Mays assumed the presidency, Morehouse was suffering from a small endowment, dilapidated buildings, and a declining academic reputation. Mays’ first order of business was to increase enrollment, and he went about it with a determined technique that is still regarded as visionary today Traveling throughout the state and beyond, he sought out smart but underachieving students—whether or not they had earned high school diplomas—and took them in at Morehouse. With constant encouragement, many of Mays’ recruits flourished. Notable among them, Martin Luther King, Jr., entered Morehouse at age 15 in 1944.
Over the course of Mays’ 27 years of leadership, Morehouse attained financial stability, saw its campus double in size, and earned a national reputation for excellence. Beyond Morehouse, Mays continued to devote a good part of his life to the African American community, both in Atlanta and around the nation. He was a leader in the NAACP and the World Council of Churches, and was an advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. The New York Times quoted King as calling Mays “his spiritual and intellectual mentor.” When King was assassinated, Mays had the sad distinction of delivering his eulogy.
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 because of the progressive organizations he had worked with over the years. Mays rejected the charge and refused to apologize for joining with others to fight for the rights of African Americans. He described himself as dedicated to causes appropriate for a “man of God,” and willing to fight for them. He entitled his autobiography, published in 1971, Born to Rebel. After nearly three decades at Morehouse, Mays died in Atlanta on March 28, 1984.
During his life, Mays received more than 40 honorary degrees from institutions throughout the nation and the world. The NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor. Yet Mays is 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.