Benjamin Mays

Benjamin Mays

Mays by Robert Templeton, 1969
6th President of Morehouse College
In office
July 1, 1940 (1940-07-01)  July 1, 1967 (1967-07-01)
Preceded by Charles D. Hubert
Succeeded by Hugh Morris Gloster
Personal details
Born Benjamin Elijah Mays
(1894-08-01)August 1, 1894
Ninety Six, South Carolina, U.S.
Died March 28, 1984(1984-03-28) (aged 89)
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Ellen Harvin (m. 1920–23)
Sadie Gray (m. 1926–84)
Alma mater
Occupation Minister
Academic administrator
Profession Former dean of Howard University
Committees African-American Civil Rights Movement
Peace movement
Religion Christianity
Baptist (Progressive National Baptist Convention)
Awards Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) Honorary degree from Bishop's University

Benjamin Elijah Mays (August 1, 1894 – March 28, 1984) was an American Baptist minister, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.[1] He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights, and the progression of political rights of African Americans in America. He was active working with world leaders, such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and John D. Rockefeller, in improving the social standing of minorities in politics, education, and business.

Originally enrolling in Virginia Union University, he moved north to attend Bates College in Maine, where he obtained his B.A. in 1920, as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate. He began his activist career as a pastor in the Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He then entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student, earning an M.A. in 1925, and a Ph.D. in Religion in 1935. After he attained his Doctorate he went on to teach at Morehouse College, where he taught mathematics and was their debate coach. In 1934, he was appointed dean of the School of Religion at Howard University.

He served as the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia from 1940 to 1967. He revived the college from serious financial burden and by the end of his term more than quadrupled the endowment. As president, he served as a trusted adviser to U.S. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. He was appointed by President Truman to the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth.

Mays was also a significant mentor to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and King considered him, his "spiritual mentor" and "intellectual father."[2] Mays became a civil rights activist early in his career, by publishing a dissertation entitled The Negro's Church, the first sociological study of the black church in the United States. He is widely credited as the most influential figure in the desegregation of Atlanta.[3]

Early life and family history

Childhood and youth

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.[3] 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."[3]

When he was little, a white mob approached his home on horseback with guns drawn, and forced his father 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. When he was a child, he excelled in his studies and had "an insatiable desire to get an education."[4] 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.[5]

He attended the Brick House School in Epworth, a Baptist-sponsored school, Mays left Epworth to attend the High School Department at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He graduated as Valedictorian at the age of 22, in 1916, in three years.[3]

Bates College years

"Through completive 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..."

- Benjamin Mays on his time at Bates College

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, 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."[3]

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."[4] 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 graduated from the college in 1920, with a B.A., as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate. Shortly after graduating from Bates, he married his first wife, Ellen Harvin, who died in 1923, following an operation.[3] Approximately seventeen years later, the college extended an honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, and gave him the first-ever "Alumnus of Merit Award", subsequently renamed the "Benjamin E. Mays Medal", the college's highest honor.[3][6]


Early career

Mays began his teaching career at Morehouse College, as an instructor of Mathematics, in September 1929. He was the first person to teach Calculus at the college, and after one year of instruction was promoted to instruct in religious studies.[3]

He then 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. His education at Chicago was interrupted several times: he was ordained a Baptist minister in 1922 and accepted a pastorate at the Shiloh Baptist Church of Atlanta, then later taught at Morehouse and at South Carolina State College. While teaching at South Carolina State College, he met his second wife, Sadie Mays and married in 1926. After their marriage, they moved to Tampa, Florida to serve with the Tampa Urban League.[3]

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.[3]

Howard University

Mays first came into contact with Howard University in Washington, D.C, in 1926, when the first African American president of the college was elected, and Mays was appointed the second African American to serve as dean. He was appointed Dean of the School of Religion, in 1934, and promptly began to expand the endowment and national standing of the institution. He went on to increase enrollment, develop regular tin program for students and faculty, expanded faculty, and establish an endowment.[3]

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.[7] Mays left Howard in 1940, and was honored with the renaming of the newly constructed home of the divinity school to "Benjamin Mays Hall"[3]

Early publications

In 1928, he served as National Student Secretary of the YMCA in Atlanta but took a leave to conduct a national study of African-American churches from 1928 to 1930. 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. Four years later in 1938, he published The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature. He went on to write numerous articles on race, religion, and the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

Morehouse College

Mays in his capacity as the 6th president of Morehouse College.

As President

On July 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."[3] 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.[8] 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.[3]

Financial growth

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.[9] Dr. 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. Mays' fee collecting earned him the nickname "Buck Benny", and he more than quadrupled the endowment that he inherited by the end of his 27-year tenure.[9]

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.[10]

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."[8] 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.[10]

White House ties

As president, 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 Paul 23rd died in 1963, President Kennedy sent Mays and his Vice President to represent the United States at the funeral in Rome, Italy.[7]

Martin Luther King Jr.

His most famous student at Morehouse was someone who benefitted deeply from his educational and religious philosophies - Martin Luther King Jr. The two developed a close relationship that continued until King's death in 1968. Dr. King referred to Mays as his "Spiritual Mentor", and he saw in Mays "the ideal of what I [King] wanted a minister to be." Mays delivered the eulogy for King at his funeral.[11]

Mays, in his eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College in 1968 noted King's time in history by stating:

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 from God in his life time and not in somebody else's' time.[12]

Mays emphasized two themes throughout his life: the dignity of all human beings and the gap between American democratic ideals and American social practices. Those became key elements of the message of King and the American civil rights movement. Mays explored these themes at length in his book Seeking to Be a Christian in Race Relations, published in 1957.

Mays gave the benediction at the close of the official program of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.[13][14]

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."[3]

After Morehouse

Teaching and writing

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. He began to receive honorary degrees by the dozens from colleges such as Middlebury College, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College.[3]

Atlanta Board of Education

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. He was the first African American to serve as president of the board. He was faced with court mandated desegregation orders, which caused a large outflow of whites from the area in 1970. His "commanding and demanding personality" was largely credited for the exponential levels of desegregations in Atlanta.[3] He is widely credited as the most influential figure in the desegregation of Atlanta, Georgia.[3] Mays went on to appoint Dr. Alonzo Crim as the superintendent of schools, and expand the jurisdiction of the board. 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 race. He went on to retire in 1981.[3]

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 NAACP.[1][15]

Death and legacy

“The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for, not failure, but low aim, is sin.”

- Benjamin Mays[16]

Mays died in Atlanta on March 28, 1984. He was entombed on the campus of Morehouse College. His wife Sadie is entombed beside him. He has received 56 honorary degrees,and has published nearly 2000 articles and nine books.[2] He was inducted in the South Carolina Hall of Fame in January 1983.[3]

Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta, The Mays Hall of Howard University (where the School of Divinity is housed), and the Benjamin Mays Center at Bates College are named in Mays' honor, as well as Benjamin E. Mays International Magnet School in St. Paul, Minnesota.[17] The Benjamin Mays Hall of Howard University is named in his honor.[3]

Mays was a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Benjamin Mays on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[18]


Mays wrote numerous articles on race, religion, and the African-American Civil Rights Movement. His sermons frequently spoke on the topics of stewardship, responsibility and engagement.[3]



  1. 1 2 "Dr. Benjamin E. Mays - Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence". Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  2. 1 2 "Morehouse College | Benjamin E. Mays Bio". Retrieved 2016-01-17.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Dumas, Carrie (2006). Benjamin Elijah Mays. Ladd Library, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine: Mercer University Press. pp. 33, 144, 200. ISBN 0881460168.
  4. 1 2 "Dr. Benjamin E. Mays | MMUF". Retrieved 2016-01-17.
  5. Voices of Black South Carolina: Legend & Legacy, by Damon L. Fordham, pages 125-126
  6. "Benjamin E. Mays Medal" (PDF).
  7. 1 2 "The Life of Benjamin Elijah Mays".
  8. 1 2 Jelks, Randal Maurice. Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement : A Biography. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 5 November 2014.
  9. 1 2 Mays, Benjamin E.. Born to Rebel : An Autobiography. Athens, GA, USA: University of Georgia Press, 2003. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 5 November 2014.
  10. 1 2 Roper, John Herbert. Magnificent Mays : A Biography of Benjamin Elijah Mays. Columbia, SC, USA: University of South Carolina Press, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 5 November 2014.
  11. "King Encyclopedia,"
  12. "Quote of the Day: Benjamin E. Mays on Martin Luther King Jr.". The Root. Retrieved 2016-01-17.
  14. "Benjamin Mays benediction". Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  15. NAACP Spingarn Medal Archived 2014-05-05 at WebCite
  16. "Dr. Benjamin E. Mays". The Independent. 22 February 2016.
  17. Benjamin E. Mays International Magnet School
  18. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.


Further reading

External links

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