Benjamin Elijah Mays (August 1, 1894 – March 28, 1984) was an American minister, educator, scholar, social activist and the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia from 1940 to 1967. Mays was also a significant mentor to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and was among the most articulate and outspoken critics of segregation before the rise of the modern civil rights movement in the United States.
Early life and education
Benjamin Elijah Mays was born in 1894 in Ninety Six, South Carolina, the youngest of eight children; his parents were tenant farmers and former slaves. After spending a year at Virginia Union University, he moved north to attend Bates College in Maine, where he obtained his B.A. in 1920, 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 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.
While working on his doctorate, Mays and Joseph Nicholson published a study entitled The Negro’s Church, 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.
Mays accepted the position of dean of the School of Religion at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1934. 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.
In 1940, Mays became the president of Morehouse College. His most famous student there was Martin Luther King Jr. The two developed a close relationship that continued until King’s death in 1968; As his lifelong mentor, Mays delivered the eulogy for King.
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.
After his retirement in 1967 from Morehouse, Mays was elected president of the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education, where he supervised the peaceful desegregation of Atlanta’s public schools. He published two autobiographies, Born to Rebel (1971), and Lord, the People Have Driven Me On (1981).
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.
Mays died in Atlanta on March 28, 1984. He was entombed on the campus of Morehouse College. His wife Sadie is entombed beside him.
The Mays family has initiated a petition to honor Dr. Mays’ legacy through a nomination for the high honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- Benjamin E. Mays, Born to Rebel: An Autobiography (New York: Scribner, ; reprint, with a revised foreword by Orville Vernon Burton, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003). ISBN 0-8203-2523-6.
- Benjamin Mays (profile by Roger Wilkins in June 2, 2003 issue of The Nation magazine on “American Rebels”)