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Benjamin Elijah Mays (August 1, 1895–March 24, 1984) significantly influenced the American civil rights movement throughout most of 20th century. As a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and an advisor to presidents, his impact far exceeded his humble beginnings. Mays was an educator, scholar, philosopher, and theologian.

Born in rural Epworth, South Carolina, Mays faced an uncertain academic future. His parents were both former slaves. The youngest of eight children, he developed an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that would last throughout his lifetime. He grew to maturity during an era in America in which black men routinely were harassed for no reason at all and lynched for minor offenses. Witnessing his father’s humiliation at the hands of a mob of white men, young May began to cry, causing the would-be perpetrators to relent. Throughout his life, he reflected upon this event as the moment that strengthened his resolve to fight for racial equality and social justice.

As a first-generation child of freed slaves in the southern United States, Mays encountered racial discrimination and faced economic hardship in obtaining an education. At the age of six, he entered the one-room Brickhouse School already knowing how to count, read, and write. He became the school’s star student, but his academic endeavors conflicted with his home life. His father viewed any formal education beyond the elementary level with disapproval and wanted his son to become a farmer or preacher. Mays, however, aspired to an education beyond a rudimentary level. Overcoming his father's objections, he enrolled at the high school of South Carolina State College at Orangeburg, from which he graduated in 1916 as valedictorian. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Virginia Union University. With the support of two of his professors there, he gained admission to Bates College in Maine in 1917. To pay his way through college, Mays spent his summers working as a Pullman railway porter.

Mays earned a bachelor’s degree from Bates College and accepted an appointment at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, at which he taught mathematics, psychology, and religious education. While teaching at Morehouse, he became pastor of Atlanta’s Shiloh Baptist Church. During the same time that he served as a professor and pastor, he completed his master's degree and later his doctorate in ethics and Christian theology from the University of Chicago. In 1934, he became dean of the School of Religion at Howard University, but six years later, returned to Morehouse College as its President. Although he benefited from attending predominately white, higher-education institutions and fought for the integration of all-white colleges, Dr. Mays did not believe that the solution to the plight of black America could be found solely within white institutions. Instead, he advocated strengthening institutions that predominantly served blacks.

As President of Atlanta's Morehouse College, Mays mentored young men who later would become the leaders of the modern civil rights movement, including Andrew Young and Julian Bond. Perhaps the most famous Morehouse graduate, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., considered Mays his spiritual mentor and intellectual father. Mays influenced the civil rights movement in the 1960s as a voice of moderation when the movement was becoming increasingly militant. Through his efforts, the city of Atlanta peacefully integrated its public schools. From 1969 to 1981, he served on the Atlanta Board of Education.

Dr. Mays died in 1984 of natural causes, leaving behind a legacy of leaders who are still working to integrate and improve America for all Americans. Regardless of whether our skin is black or our eyes are blue, we all benefit from the vision Benjamin Mays shared with so many over his 88 years.

Contributed by: Willie Adams, The University of Texas at Austin

Colston, F. C. 2002. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays speaks. Lanham, MA: University Press of America.

Mays, B. E. 1971. Born to rebel: An autobiography. New York: Scribner.

Salley, C. 1993. The black 100. New York: Citadel Press.

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