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Mays, Benjamin E. 1894–1984

Benjamin E. Mays 18941984

Educator, theologian, civil rights advocate, writer

Found Fulfillment in Academic Achievement

Encountered Anger and Racism in Atlanta

Worked to Strengthen Black Colleges

Inspired Civil Rights Activists

Selected writings

Sources

African American scholar Benjamin E. Mays was among the first generation of people of color to be born into freedom in the southern United States. Still, he was forced to battle racial discrimination and economic hardship in the drive to obtain an education. Later, during his 27 years as president of Atlantas Morehouse College, one of the countrys leading black educational institutions, he worked to provide African American students with the academic and social opportunities for which he had fought so hard.

Among the many distinguished Morehouse graduates he inspired were former mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young; Georgia state senator Julian Bond; and civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Frank J. Prial of the New York Times, King once described Mays as his spiritual mentor and intellectual father.

During the early 1960s, having entered the third decade of his presidency of Morehouse College, Mays played an important role in the integration of Atlanta by helping students organize sit-ins at lunch counters and other segregated facilities. He later held a prominent position on the Atlanta Board of Education.

Throughout his life, Mays maintained that education, personal pride, and peaceful protest were the most effective weapons in the war against racial bigotry. To me black power must mean hard work, trained minds, and perfected skills to perform in a competitive society, he wrote in his critically acclaimed autobiography Born to Rebel, published in 1971. The injustices imposed upon the black man for centuries make it all the more obligatory that he develop himself. There must be no dichotomy between the development of ones mind and a deep sense of appreciation of ones heritage. An unjust penalty has been imposed upon the Negro because he is black. The dice are loaded against him. Knowing this, as the Jew knows about anti-Semitism, the black man must never forget the necessity that he perfect his talents and potentials to the ultimate.

Found Fulfillment in Academic Achievement

The youngest of eight children, Benjamin Mays was born in Epworth, South Carolina, in 1894, and raised on an isolated cotton farm. At that time, the maximum school term for black children was only four monthsNovember

At a Glance

Born Benjamin Elijah Mays, August 1, 1894, in Epworth, SC; died March 21, 1984, in Atlanta. GA; son of S. Hezekiah (a farmer) and Louvenia (Carter) Mays; married Ellen Marvin (deceased), married Sadie Grey (a social worker), August 9, 1926 (died 1969). Education : Bates College, B.A., 1920; University of Chicago, M.A., 1925, Ph.D., 1935.

Teacher of higher mathematics, Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, 192124; ordained Baptist minister, 1922; pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, Atlanta, 192224; instructor in English, State College of South Carolina, 192526; executive secretary, Tampa Urban League, 192628; national student secretary, Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA), 192830, director of study of black churches in America, Institute of Social and Religious Research, New York City, 193032; Howard University, dean of School of Religion, 193440; More house College, president, 194067, emeritus professor, 196784; World Council of Churches, Amsterdam, delegate, 1948; Baptist World Alliance Assembly, leader, 1950; United Negro College Fund, Inc. (UNCF), president, 195861; consultant to U.S. Office of Education, ! 969, and Ford Foundation, 1970; adviser to Southern Christian Leadership Council; chairman, Atlanta Board of Education, 197081. lecturer and writer.

Member: Phi Beta Kappa, Delta Sigma Rho, Delta Theta Chi, Omega Psi Phi.

Selected awards: Amistad Award, American Missionary Association, 1968; Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Award, 1968; Myrtle Wreath Award, Atlanta chapter, Hadassah, 1969; Religious Leaders Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1970; Russwurm Award, National Newspaper Publishers, 1970; Dorie Miller Award, 1971; Roy Wiikins Award, NAACP, 1977; Top Hat Award, Chicago Defender, 1978; Distinguished American Educator Award, U.S. Office of Education, 1978; Hale Woodruff Award, UNCF, 1978; Spingam Medal, NAACP, 1982; named to South Carolina Hall of Fame, 1984; recipient of more than 45 honorary degrees.

through Februaryso he and his brothers and sisters spent most of the year helping with the planting and picking. Mays was an avid student, however; thanks to early lessons from his elder sister, Susie, by the time he arrived at the one-room Brickhouse School at the age of six, he already knew how to count, read, and write. He quickly became the star pupil there and wept whenever bad weather kept him at home.

Church provided another outlet for his talents. At the age of nine he received a standing ovation from the Mount Zion Baptist congregation for his recitation of the Sermon on the Mount. The people in the church did not contribute one dime to help me with my education, he recalled in Born to Rebel. But they gave me something far more valuable. They gave me the thing I most needed. They expressed such confidence in me that I always felt that I could never betray their trust, never let them down.

Mays needed all the encouragement he could get. During his childhood, mob violence against blacks was rampant, and brutal lynchings were a common occurrence. Among his earliest memories was that of a group of white men with rifles riding up to his home on horseback and demanding that his father remove his cap and bow down to them. As a child my life was one of frustration and doubt, he recalled in Born to Rebel. Nor did the situation improve as I grew older. Long before I could visualize them, I knew within my body, my mind, and my spirit that I faced galling restrictions, seemingly insurmountable barriers, dangers and pitfalls.

When Mays expressed a desire to continue his education beyond the elementary level, his father responded with anger and disdain. At that time, it was believed that the only honest occupations for black men were farming and preaching. Education, his father maintained, made men both liars and fools. Eventually Mays overcame his fathers objections, however, and enrolled at the high school of South Carolina State College at Orangeburg. He graduated in 1916 as valedictorian.

Determined to prove his worth in the white mans world, Mays resolved to leave his native South Carolina and continue his education in New England. How could I know I was not inferior to the white man, having never had a chance to compete with him? he wrote in Born to Rebel. Mays spent a year at Virginia Union University and obtained letters of recommendation from two of his professors before gaining admission to Bates College in Maine. He began his studies there as a sophomore in September 1917. Summer work as a Pullman porteras well as scholarships and loans from the collegehelped him pay his way.

At Bates, where he was one of only a handful of black students, Mays was surprised and heartened to find himself treated as an equal for the very first time. Both his academic gifts and his enthusiastic participation in extracurricular activities quickly made him a campus leader. After graduating with honors in 1920, Mays completed several semesters of graduate work at the University of Chicago. He then accepted an invitation from Morehouse

College president John Hope (whom he happened to meet in the University of Chicago library) to teach higher mathematics in Atlanta. He arrived at Morehouse in 1921, and remained there for the next three years, teaching math, psychology, and religious education. In 1922 he was ordained a Baptist minister and assumed the pastorate of nearby Shiloh Baptist Church. He returned to the University of Chicago in 1924 to complete work on his masters degree, and ten years later received his doctorate in ethics and Christian theology.

Encountered Anger and Racism in Atlanta

Mayss positive experiences as a student at Bates College had filled him with a new sense of pride and optimism. But the Atlanta he encountered in the early 1920s was a tense and angry place, where streetcars, elevators, parks, waiting rooms, and even ambulances were segregated; where Ku Klux Klan rallies and lynchings were everyday facts of life; where people of color were prohibited from voting; and where the only high school education available for African Americans was provided by private academies connected to the all-black colleges.

The return of black soldiers from Europe at the end of World War I had only served to heighten racial tensions in the city. It was in Atlanta, Georgia, that I was to see the race problem in greater depth, and observe and experience it in larger dimensions, Mays wrote in Born to Rebel. It was in Atlanta that I was to find that the cruel tentacles of race prejudice reached out to invade and distort every aspect of Southern life.

After completing his masters degree at the University of Chicago in 1925, Mays spent a year teaching English at the State College of South Carolina at Orangeburg. The following year, he and his wife, Sadie Grey, a teacher and social worker whom he had met in Chicago, moved to Florida, where Mays took over the position of executive secretary for the Tampa Urban League. Two years later, he was named national student secretary of the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA), based in Atlanta.

In 1930 Mays left this post to direct a study of black churches in the United States for the Institute of Social and Religious Research in New York City. He and a fellow minister, Joseph W. Nicholson, spent 14 months collecting data from some 800 rural and urban churches throughout the country in an effort to identify the churchs influence in the black community. Among the subjects addressed were the education and training of ministers, the churches financial resources, and the kinds of religious and social programs offered.

The results of the study were published in 1933 under the title The Negros Church. In a review for the periodical Books, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive secretary Walter White described the report as one of the few examinations of this sort and an important achievement in its understanding of all the social, economic and other forces which have made [the black church] what it is.

Mays would focus on the vital importance of the black church in American society in a host of other writings published in the 1930s and 1940s. In an article appearing in the summer 1940 issue of Christendom, he maintained that the black church was largely responsible for keeping one-tenth of Americas population sanely religious in the midst of an environment that is, for the most part, hostile to it.

Worked to Strengthen Black Colleges

In 1934 Mays became dean of the School of Religion at Howard University. During his six-year tenure, he succeeded in strengthening the faculty and facilities to such an extent that the school achieved a Class A rating from the American Association of Theological Schools. This made it only the second all-black seminary in the nation to receive such accreditation. During this period, Mays traveled widely, attending church and YMCA conferences around the world and earning an international reputation for academic excellence. His wife, Sadie, accompanied him on most of his trips.

Mays was named president of Morehouse College in July of 1940, exactly 19 years after he had begun his teaching career there. In Born to Rebel, published some 30 years later, he reflected upon the ineffable energy and spirit of the place. I found a special, intangible something at Morehouse in 1921 which sent men out into life with a sense of mission, believing that they could accomplish whatever they set out to do, he wrote. This priceless quality was still alive when I returned in 1940, and for twenty-seven years I built on what I found, instilling in Morehouse students the idea that despite crippling circumscriptions the sky was their limit.

While president of Morehouse, Mays fought for the integration of all-white colleges but remained an outspoken advocate of predominantly black institutions, such as Morehouse and Howard. If white America really wants to improve Negro higher education, it would do well to recognize the fact that it will not be adequately done by allowing black colleges to die the slow death of starvation, he wrote in Born to Rebel. His steadfast devotion to academic excellence helped Morehouse become one of only four Georgia colleges to be approved for a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Inspired Civil Rights Activists

Perhaps Mayss greatest influence was on the individual students he encountered both in the classroom and through the college chapel. His greatest honor, he later said, was having taught and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., the colleges most celebrated alumnus. During Morehouse commencement ceremonies in June of 1957, Mays honored Dr. King for his leadership in the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott by conferring upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. King later became a member of the Morehouse College board of trustees. Mays also convinced two of Georgias brightest African American politicians, Andrew Young and Julian Bond, to seek public office.

Mays became even more directly involved in the civil rights movement in 1960 when he agreed to help students from Morehouse and other Atlanta colleges organize peaceful protests throughout the cityan action which, after 18 months, resulted in the integration of the Atlanta public school system. Prial remembered Mays in a New York Times obituary as a voice of moderation in the critical years of the civil rights movement. He attacked white liberals who paid only lip service to racial equality, but he [also] criticized black extremists for undermining attempts at unity between races.

After his retirement from Morehouse College in 1967, Mays served as a consultant for a variety of governmental, educational, civic, and religious organizations, and in 1969 he became a member of the Atlanta Board of Education. He remained on the board until 1981. During this time he also produced his powerful autobiography,

Born to Rebel. In his preface, Mays described the book as the story of the lifelong quest of a man who desired to be looked upon first as a human being and incidentally as a Negro, to be accepted first as an American and secondarily as a black man. J. B. Cullen of Books called it a condemnation of the white treatment of the blacks in the United States and a story that should be read by everyone. Prior to his death in 1984 at the age of 89, Mays wrote dozens of scholarly articles on racial, educational, and religious issues, spoke at more than 200 universities and colleges, and received some 45 honorary degrees.

Selected writings

(With Joseph W. Nicholson) The Negros Church, Institute of Social and Religious Research, 1933.

The Negros God as Reflected in His Literature, Chapman & Grimes, 1938.

Seeking to Be Christian in Race Relations, Friendship, 1957.

Disturbed About Man (sermons), John Knox, 1969.

Born to Rebel: An Autobiography, Scribner, 1971.

Lord, the People Have Driven Me On, Vantage, 1981.

Quotable Quotes of Benjamin E. Mays, Vantage, 1983.

Contributor to numerous periodicals, including Crisis, Christian Century, and Journal of Negro Education; some writings also published in anthologies.

Sources

Books

Mays, Benjamin, Born to Rebel: An Autobiography, Scribner, 1971.

Salley, Columbus, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.

Periodicals

Bestsellers, April 15, 1971.

Black Enterprise, May 1977, pp. 2629.

Books, March 26, 1933.

Christendom, Summer 1940.

Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 1971.

Ebony, July 1954, p. 27; January 1961, p. 48; June 1965, pp. 16572; July 1971, pp. 8894; August 1971, p. 52; December 1977, pp. 7280.

Jet, August 3, 1992, p. 24.

New York Times, March 29, 1984, p. D23.

New York Times Book Review, April 25, 1971, pp. 4748.

Washington Post, March 29, 1984.

Other

Benjamin E. Mays, History on Video (30-minute biographical tape), first televised on Black Entertainment Television, 1992.

Caroline B. D. Smith

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Mays, Benjamin (1895–1984)

MAYS, BENJAMIN (18951984)


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.

See also: Historically Black Colleges and Universities; Multicultural Education.

bibliography

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):615.

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):404416.

William H. Watkins

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Benjamin E. Mays

Benjamin E. Mays

In addition to occupying the president's office at Morehouse, Benjamin Mays (1894-1984) wrote, taught mathematics, worked for the Office of Education, served as chairman of the Atlanta Board of Education, preached in a Baptist church, acted as an advisor to the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and was a church historian.

African American scholar Benjamin E. Mays was among the first generation of people of color to be born into freedom in the southern United States. Still, he was forced to battle racial discrimination and economic hardship in the drive to obtain an education. Later, during his 27 years as president of Atlanta's Morehouse College, one of the country's leading black educational institutions, he worked to provide African American students with the academic and social opportunities for which he had fought so hard. Among the many distinguished Morehouse graduates he inspired were former mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young; Georgia state senator Julian Bond; and civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Frank J. Prial of the New York Times, King once described Mays as his "spiritual mentor an…. intellectual father."

During the early 1960s, having entered the third decade of his presidency of Morehouse College, Mays played an important role in the integration of Atlanta by helping students organize sit-ins at lunch counters and other segregated facilities. He later held a prominent position on the Atlanta Board of Education.

Throughout his life, Mays maintained that education, personal pride, and peaceful protest were the most effective weapons in the war against racial bigotry. "To me black power must mean hard work, trained minds, and perfected skills to perform in a competitive society," he wrote in his critically acclaimed autobiography Born to Rebel, published in 1971. "The injustices imposed upon the black man for centuries make it all the more obligatory that he develop himself…. There must be no dichotomy between the development of one's mind and a deep sense of appreciation of one's heritage. An unjust penalty has been imposed upon the Negro because he is black. The dice are loaded against him. Knowing this, as the Jew knows about anti-Semitism, the black man must never forget the necessity that he perfect his talents and potentials to the ultimate."

Found Fulfillment in Academic Achievement

The youngest of eight children, Benjamin Mays was born in Epworth, South Carolina, in 1894, and raised on an isolated cotton farm. At that time, the maximum school term for black children was only four months—November through February—so he and his brothers and sisters spent most of the year helping with the planting and picking. Mays was an avid student, however; thanks to early lessons from his elder sister, Susie, by the time he arrived at the one-room Brickhouse School at the age of six, he already knew how to count, read, and write. He quickly became the star pupil there and wept whenever bad weather kept him at home.

Church provided another outlet for his talents. At the age of nine he received a standing ovation from the Mount Zion Baptist congregation for his recitation of the Sermon on the Mount. "The people in the church did not contribute one dime to help me with my education," he recalled in Born to Rebel. "But they gave me something far more valuable. They gave me the thing I most needed. They expressed such confidence in me that I always felt that I could never betray their trust, never let them down."

Mays needed all the encouragement he could get. During his childhood, mob violence against blacks was rampant, and brutal lynchings were a common occurrence. Among his earliest memories was that of a group of white men with rifles riding up to his home on horseback and demanding that his father remove his cap and bow down to them. "As a child my life was one of frustration and doubt," he recalled in Born to Rebel. "Nor did the situation improve as I grew older. Long before I could visualize them, I knew within my body, my mind, and my spirit that I faced galling restrictions, seemingly insurmountable barriers, dangers and pitfalls."

When Mays expressed a desire to continue his education beyond the elementary level, his father responded with anger and disdain. At that time, it was believed that the only honest occupations for black men were farming and preaching. Education, his father maintained, made men both liars and fools. Eventually Mays overcame his father's objections, however, and enrolled at the high school of South Carolina State College at Orangeburg. He graduated in 1916 as valedictorian.

Determined to prove his worth in the white man's world, Mays resolved to leave his native South Carolina and continue his education in New England. "How could I know I was not inferior to the white man, having never had a chance to compete with him?" he wrote in Born to Rebel. Mays spent a year at Virginia Union University and obtained letters of recommendation from two of his professors before gaining admission to Bates College in Maine. He began his studies there as a sophomore in September 1917. Summer work as a Pullman porter—as well as scholarships and loans from the college—helped him pay his way.

At Bates, where he was one of only a handful of black students, Mays was surprised and heartened to find himself treated as an equal for the very first time. Both his academic gifts and his enthusiastic participation in extracurricular activities quickly made him a campus leader. After graduating with honors in 1920, Mays completed several semesters of graduate work at the University of Chicago. He then accepted an invitation from Morehouse College president John Hope (whom he happened to meet in the University of Chicago library) to teach higher mathematics in Atlanta. He arrived at Morehouse in 1921, and remained there for the next three years, teaching math, psychology, and religious education. In 1922 he was ordained a Baptist minister and assumed the pastorate of nearby Shiloh Baptist Church. He returned to the University of Chicago in 1924 to complete work on his master's degree, and ten years later received his doctorate in ethics and Christian theology.

Encountered Anger and Racism in Atlanta

Mays's positive experiences as a student at Bates College had filled him with a new sense of pride and optimism. But the Atlanta he encountered in the early 1920s was a tense and angry place, where streetcars, elevators, parks, waiting rooms, and even ambulances were segregated; where Ku Klux Klan rallies and lynchings were everyday facts of life; where people of color were prohibited from voting; and where the only high school education available for African Americans was provided by private academies connected to the all-black colleges. The return of black soldiers from Europe at the end of World War I had only served to heighten racial tensions in the city. "It was in Atlanta, Georgia, that I was to see the race problem in greater depth, and observe and experience it in larger dimensions," Mays wrote in Born to Rebel." It was in Atlanta that I was to find that the cruel tentacles of race prejudice reached out to invade and distort every aspect of Southern life."

After completing his master's degree at the University of Chicago in 1925, Mays spent a year teaching English at the State College of South Carolina at Orangeburg. The following year, he and his wife, Sadie Grey, a teacher and social worker whom he had met in Chicago, moved to Florida, where Mays took over the position of executive secretary for the Tampa Urban League. Two years later, he was named national student secretary of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), based in Atlanta.

In 1930 Mays left this post to direct a study of black churches in the United States for the Institute of Social and Religious Research in New York City. He and a fellow minister, Joseph W. Nicholson, spent 14 months collecting data from some 800 rural and urban churches throughout the country in an effort to identify the church's influence in the black community. Among the subjects addressed were the education and training of ministers, the churches' financial resources, and the kinds of religious and social programs offered. The results of the study were published in 1933 under the title The Negro's Church. In a review for the periodical Books, NAACP executive secretary Walter White described the report as "one of the few examinations of this sort" and "an important achievement in its understanding of all the social, economic and other forces which have made [the black church] what it is."

Mays would focus on the vital importance of the black church in American society in a host of other writings published in the 1930s and 1940s. In an article appearing in the summer 1940 issue of Christendom, he maintained that the black church was largely responsible for "keeping one-tenth of America's population sanely religious in the midst of an environment that is, for the most part, hostile to it."

Worked to Strengthen Black Colleges

In 1934 Mays became dean of the School of Religion at Howard University. During his six-year tenure, he succeeded in strengthening the faculty and facilities to such an extent that the school achieved a Class A rating from the American Association of Theological Schools. This made it only the second all-black seminary in the nation to receive such accreditation. During this period, Mays traveled widely, attending church and YMCA conferences around the world and earning an international reputation for academic excellence. His wife, Sadie, accompanied him on most of his trips.

Mays was named president of Morehouse College in July of 1940, exactly 19 years after he had begun his teaching career there. In Born to Rebel, published some 30 years later, he reflected upon the ineffable energy and spirit of the place. "I found a special, intangible something at Morehouse in 1921 which sent men out into life with a sense of mission, believing that they could accomplish whatever they set out to do," he wrote. "This priceless quality was still alive when I returned in 1940, and for twenty-seven years I built on what I found, instilling in Morehouse students the idea that despite crippling circumscriptions the sky was their limit."

While president of Morehouse, Mays fought for the integration of all-white colleges but remained an outspoken advocate of predominantly black institutions, such as Morehouse and Howard. "If white America really wants to improve Negro higher education, it would do well to recognize the fact that it will not be adequately done by allowing black colleges to die the slow death of starvation," he wrote in Born to Rebel. His steadfast devotion to academic excellence helped Morehouse become one of only four Georgia colleges to be approved for a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Inspired Civil Rights Activists

Perhaps Mays's greatest influence was on the individual students he encountered both in the classroom and through the college chapel. His greatest honor, he later said, was having taught and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., the college's most celebrated alumnus. During Morehouse commencement ceremonies in June of 1957, Mays honored Dr. King for his leadership in the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott by conferring upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. King later became a member of the Morehouse College board of trustees. Mays also convinced two of Georgia's brightest African American politicians, Andrew Young and Julian Bond, to seek public office.

Mays became even more directly involved in the civil rights movement in 1960 when he agreed to help students from Morehouse and other Atlanta colleges organize peaceful protests throughout the city—an action which, after 18 months, resulted in the integration of the Atlanta public school system. Prial remembered Mays in a New York Times obituary as "a voice of moderation in the critical years of the civil rights movement. He attacked white liberals who paid only lip service to racial equality, but he [also] criticize…. black extremists" for undermining attempts at unity between races.

After his retirement from Morehouse College in 1967, Mays served as a consultant for a variety of governmental, educational, civic, and religious organizations, and in 1969 he became a member of the Atlanta Board of Education. He remained on the board until 1981. During this time he also produced his powerful autobiography, Born to Rebel. In his preface, Mays described the book as "the story of the lifelong quest of a man who desired to be looked upon first as a human being and incidentally as a Negro, to be accepted first as an American and secondarily as a black man." J. B. Cullen of Books called it a "condemnation of the white treatment of the blacks in the United States" and "a story that should be read by everyone." Prior to his death in 1984 at the age of 89, Mays wrote dozens of scholarly articles on racial, educational, and religious issues, spoke at more than 200 universities and colleges, and received some 45 honorary degrees.

Further Reading

Mays, Benjamin, Born to Rebel: An Autobiography, Scribner, 1971.

Salley, Columbus, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.

Best Sellers, April 15, 1971.

Black Enterprise, May 1977, pp. 26-29.

Books, March 26, 1933.

Christendom, Summer 1940.

Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 1971.

Ebony, July 1954, p. 27; January 1961, p. 48; June 1965, pp. 165-72; July 1971, pp. 88-94; August 1971, p. 52; December 1977, pp. 72-80.

Jet, August 3, 1992, p. 24.

New York Times, March 29, 1984, p. D23.

New York Times Book Review, April 25, 1971, pp. 47-48.

Washington Post, March 29, 1984.

Benjamin E. Mays, History on Video (30-minute biographical tape), first televised on Black Entertainment Television, 1992. □

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