Dr. J. F. Drake, president of Alabama A&M College, left, Dr. W. S. Davis, president of Tennessee State University, Thurgood Marshall, center, NAACP legal counselor and Dr. Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College. (Photo by Clanton III)
By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
Benjamin Mays, who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as his “spiritual mentor and intellectual father,” was born and came of age in an era of this country known as the “Nadir of American race relations.”
The period from 1877, at the end of Reconstruction to 1923, was known as the most oppressive and violent against Black Americans in the nation’s history. It was the searing hot racist crucible that helped form Mays, an intellectual giant zealously committed to the freedom of Black people.
Benjamin Elijah Mays was born August 1, 1894, in the town of Epworth in Greenwood County, South Carolina. He was the youngest of eight children born to Louvenia Carter Mays and Hezekiah Mays, two former slaves born on Virginia and South Carolina plantations respectively. Both were freed with the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. White terrorism aimed at the Mays family was a recurring narrative as the family scrambled desperately to survive.
The year Mays was born, Benjamin Tillman was South Carolina’s governor. A rabid racist, Tillman defended lynching and bragged about having helped kill Black people. During the 1890’s when Tillman was governor and then a member of the U.S. Senate, South Carolina had its highest number of lynchings of any decade.
In 1898, when Mays was four years old, a White supremacist mob called the Phoenix Riot, terrorized his family and drew their guns on his father. The next year the Ku Klux Klan continued terrorist tactics against his family. These incidents were seared into Young Mays soul and psyche.
Still, Mays excelled magnificently as a student from an early age, primarily because of what he described as “an insatiable desire to get an education.” Although his father thought education was a waste of time, time better spent working on the family’s farm, his mother enthusiastically supported his pursuit of education, despite the fact she couldn’t read or write.
After Mays graduated from the high school at Orangeburg’s State College, he enrolled at Virginia Union University in Richmond. However, the young scholar, who struggled mightily with the racist terror he witnessed was ready to leave the violent, segregated South. He sought the advice of advisors at Virginia Union who suggested he attend a prestigious college in the North. And in many ways he chose the antithesis of Virginia Union when he decided to attend Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, an almost all-White institution. Yet, once he arrived at Bates Mays proclaimed “For the first time…I felt at home in the universe.”
Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays greets admirers after the Religion-in-Life Week assembly at Morgan State College in Baltimore, Md. (AFRO archive photo)
Indeed, Mays thrived at Bates and he graduated in 1920. In 1921, he entered Divinity School at the University of Chicago and in 1922, Mays was ordained as a Baptist minister.
Over the next decade Mays accepted several different positions, including a teaching job at Morehouse College and positions with the National Urban League and the YMCA.
But, it was in 1934, when Mays was named the founding Dean of Howard University’s School of Religion when his sphere of intellectual influence increased dramatically as an advocate of the “New Negro” movement. It was a philosophy with roots in the Harlem Renaissance that focused on Black advocacy in the face of Jim Crow. In 1936, Mays traveled to India and at the urging of his Howard colleague, Howard Thurman, met with Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of India’s militant pacifist revolution against British rule. The encounter with Gandhi helped Mays form his evolving civil rights ideology.
Mays played a significant role in Howard’s unprecedented growth during his tenure, so much so in January 1940, he was secretly courted by John Hervey Wheeler, a trustee of Morehouse College (where Mays had previously taught) to gauge his interest in becoming the school’s sixth president. On March 10, 1940, Mays accepted the position as Morehouse president and moved to Atlanta. And for more than a quarter century presided over a miraculous expansion at the school, growing enrollment, improving the curriculum and increasing the endowment.
In 1944, he met 15-year old Martin Luther King Jr., who had enrolled as a Freshman at Morehouse. Mays, who was also a friend of King’s father, had a profound impact upon the young man who would become one of the nation’s most important and influential leaders. During King’s time at Morehouse from 1944 to 1948, he often heard Mays preach at the school’s chapel and almost without fail would engage his mentor for hours after the sermon ended.
During his time at Howard and Morehouse, Mays contributed greatly to the ascendance of two of the most important Black institutions in American history. He was also an adviser to four U.S. presidents: Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.
But, it is perhaps his influence upon King that is Mays’ most lasting legacy. He was a constant and trusted adviser to King from his days at Morehouse to his last days in Memphis. He delivered the benediction at the March on Washington in 1963. And he delivered King’s eulogy in 1968.
“Here was a man who believed with all of his might that the pursuit of violence at any time is ethically and morally wrong; that God and the moral weight of the universe are against it; that violence is self-defeating; and that only love and forgiveness can break the vicious circle of revenge,” Mays said during King’s eulogy.
“He believed that nonviolence would prove effective in the abolition of injustice in politics, in economics, in education, and in race relations. He was convinced, also, that people could not be moved to abolish voluntarily the inhumanity of man to man by mere persuasion and pleading, but that they could be moved to do so by dramatizing the evil through massive nonviolent resistance,” he added.
“He believed that nonviolent direct action was necessary to supplement the nonviolent victories won in federal courts. He believed that the nonviolent approach to solving social problems would ultimately prove to be redemptive.”