Biography of Benjamin Elijah Mays

Biography of Benjamin Elijah Mays

The school's namesake, the late Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, was president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia for over twenty years. There he motivated young college men, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, to "Reach for the Stars!". After retirement from Morehouse College, Dr. Mays was elected president of the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education where he served for over ten years.

Benjamin Elijah Mays
(1894 - 1984)

Benjamin Elijah Mays was born in Epworth, South Carolina, August 1, 1894, to S. Hezekiah and Louvenia (Carter) Mays. Benjamin was baptized, licensed to preach and ordained to the Christian Ministry at the Mount Zion Baptist Church.

He attended the high school of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, completing the course in three years and graduating as class valedictorian in 1916. His freshman year of college was spent at Virginia Union University. He went North to Bates College in Maine, in September of 1917, and on January 3, 1921 he arrived at the University of Chicago, for graduate study.

While in Chicago, Mays served as a student assistant to Dr. Lacey Kirk Williams, pastor of historic Olivet Baptist Church and President of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. At Bates the young man was a leading campus figure, scholastically as well as in extracurricular activities. He was an honor student (Bates College elected him to Phi Beta Kappa in 1935) and served as president of the debating council, Bates Forum, and the Phil-Hellenic Club; he was also a member of the YMCA cabinet and a star intercollegiate debater. After receiving his B.A. degree in 1920 he prepared for the church and was ordained a Baptist minister two years later.

His pastorate at the Shiloh Baptist Church of Atlanta was close to Morehouse College where he was recruited by President John Hope to teach higher mathematics and coach the debate team until 1924. His star debaters were Howard Thurman, James Madison Nabrit,Jr., and Brailsford Brazeal. The following year, 1925, he received his M.A. degree from the University of Chicago after completing his thesis on "Pagan Survivals in Christianity." Also, in this same year he became an instructor of English at South Carolina State College.

His first wife was the late Ellen Harvin, to whom he was engaged during his four years in college. They married in 1920. She was a supervisor of Negro rural schools in Clarendon county, South Carolina. She died early in 1923 following an operation in an Atlanta hospital.

On August 9, 1926, he was married to Sadie Gray, a teacher and social worker, who had also received her M.A. from the University of Chicago. The couple worked together wherever Dr. Mays' work took them. In 1926 he was appointed executive secretary of the Tampa (Florida) Urban League. After two years at this post he became National Student Secretary of the YMCA.

From 1930 until 1932 he directed a study of the Negro churches in the United States under the auspices of the Institute of Social and Religious Research in New York City. Out of this work grew his book The Negro's Church, written in collaboration with Joseph W. Nicholson and published in 1933. This volume is an exhaustive sociological survey of the Negro church in America, based on a firsthand study of 609 urban and 185 rural churches in twelve cities and four rural areas. Carefully documented, the book treats various aspects of the Negro church with scholarly thoroughness. In later years Mays discussed this subject in magazine articles. This volume stood unrivaled for 35 years.

The educator's next position took him to Washington, D.C., where he became dean of the Howard University School of Religion in 1934 at the invitation of his friend and mentor, President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson a member of the Morehouse College Class of 1911. In 1935 the Reverend Mr. Mays was awarded his Ph.D. degree by the University of Chicago. His dissertation was titled, "The Idea of God in Contemporary Negro Literature."

During his six-year administration the Howard University School of Religion attracted national attention and was rated Class A by the American Association of Theological Schools. During this period Mays represented the United States at various world conferences.

In 1937, with twelve other Americans, he attended the World Conference of the UMCA in Mysore, India, at which time he had a private conference with Mohandas K. Gandhi on nonviolence. This meeting was urged by Howard Thurman, who had earlier met with Gandhi and was convinced of the relevance of nonviolence as the method to end American segregation. That year he was also present as America's delegate at the Oxford Conference on the Church, Community and State at Oxford University, Oxford England.

In the course of these years of travel Mays' opportunity to observe foreign countries and peoples was extensive: in 1937 he and his wife traveled in England, Scotland, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and France. Two years later he again represented the YMCA, this time at the Plenary Session of the World Committee in Stockholm. That same year he was a leader at the Youth Conference in Amsterdam.

Mays became president of Morehouse college July 1st, 1940, upon the unchallenged recommendation of Charles Dubois Hubert. Upon his arrival, Dr. Mays described the nature of his dedication to the task ahead of him, by saying, "I intend to draw more than my salary and my breath."

This same year, the Rev. Dr. D.V. Jemison was elected president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. in both national and international ecumenical assemblies, and helped bring additional world renown to Mays, Morehouse, and the Convention.

Morehouse College is a fully accredited liberal arts college for African American men. Rated Class A by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools; Morehouse is the alma mater of many leading Blacks of the Nation. During Mays' wartime presidency, a period of difficulty for all colleges, the school's enrollment remained satisfactory because he had the foresight to create an early recruitment program in which high schoolers were admitted to the College at the end of their 10th grade year. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of many early admittees in September of 1944 at the age of 15. Dr. Mays also increased the tuition which earned him the nickname from the students, "Buck Bennie."

In his Tuesday morning chapel services, there was one hymn that Dr. Mays had the student body sing, at least once a week, called "Integer Vitae," popularly known as "He Who Is Upright." The words to the song were:

"He who is upright, kind, and free from error, Needs not the aid of arms or men to guard him; Safely he moves, a child guilty terrors, Strong in his virtues.
What though he journey o'er the burning desert, Or climb alone the dreadful, dangerous mountains, Or taste the waters of the framed Hydasped, God will attend him."

In the 1945 spring issue of the Morehouse College Bulletin the president stated the school's educational aims: "To improve the quality and quantity of our work to the end that our graduates will improve the quality of their leadership in their respective communities... We should strive to produce men superior in poise, social imagination, integrity, resourcefulness, and superior in possessing an all-embracing love for all peoples irrespective of race or color. The African American should see, he also said, that "his sufferings and his ills are fragmentary parts of the sufferings of all peoples in history from the dawn of man up to the present."

Mays' many writings include 19 chapters in books and 232 articles in such publications as the "Crisis", "Christian Century", "Journal of Negro Education", (in which he was a contributing editor), "Missions", "Woman's Press", and the "Morehouse College Bulletin". He published nine books in his lifetime: "The Negro's Church" (The first sociological study of the Black Church in America), "The Negro's God" (The first volume on Black liberation theology in the United States), "Seeking to be Christian in Race Relations", "A Gospel for the Social Awakening", "The Christian in Race Relations" (pamphlet), "Disturbed About Man" (His only published volume of sermons), "Born to Rebel" (His social autobiography), "Lord, the People Have Driven Me On", and "Quotable Quotes". He published 1,871 articles in the National Edition of the Pittsburgh Courier Newspaper from 1946 to 1982.

Dr. Mays wrote over 800 unpublished addresses, lectures, eulogies and sermons. Articles by Mays also appeared in newspapers like the Tampa bulletin, The Norfolk Journal and Guide, and The Atlanta Constitution. Mays found time to publish in scholarly journals and popular magazines for the academy, church and society. Examples include: "The National Educational Outlook Among Negroes", "The A.M.E. Zion Quarterly Review", "Encyclopedia of Religion", "Howard University Bulletin", "Journal of Religious Thought", "Highland", "Religion in Life", "Georgia Observer ", "The Pulpit", "Church Social Worker", "International Journal of Religious Education", "Phylon", "Woman's Mission", "The Methodist Woman","Prophetic Religion", "Negro Digest", "The Chicago Defender", "Our World", "Child Study", "Presbyterian Survey", "World Call", "Presbyterian Life", "The Y.W.C.A. Magazine", "The Intercollegian", "Wesley Quarterly", "The Journal of Educational Sociology", "The Atlantic Monthly", "Saturday Review", "Ebony", "Together", and "Teachers College Record".

In December 1944 Mays was elected vice-president of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, the first member of his race to hold that office; he serve with Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam. The distinguished educator belonged to several organizations, including the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, the Southern Regional Council, the Commission on the Basis of a Just and Durable Peace, and the Commission on Christian Strategy for Post-War Planning. Mays was a member of three fraternities, Delta Sigma Rho, Delta Theta Chi, and Omega Psi Phi; and he was also a member of the national board of the YMCA.
A well-known lecturer, he was frequently called to speak before Southern white audiences, as well as African Americans, and he lectured at hundreds of colleges in the United States. Mays was, in 1944, named on the Schomburg Honor Roll of Race Relations as one of twelve Blacks who had done outstanding work in building better race relations in America. In the mid 1950's he was cited by building better race relations in America. In the mid 1950's he was cited by the Pittsburgh Courier as one of the twelve most powerful men in America.
During his 27 - year presidency at Morehouse College he brought a Phi Beta Kamma chapter to the school and built the Morehouse faculty to more than 50% Ph.D's. Upon his retirement, the Morehouse College Trustees honored him by permitting Mays to choose his own successor. He chose and challenged his former faculty member and editor of his speeches and articles, a powerful fund raiser, and published author, Dr. Hugh Moris Gloster, a summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Fulbright Ph.D., listed in the English Who's Who, and Dean of faculty at Hampton University.

His social autobiography, Born to Rebel, sold more than 25,000 hard back copies. In 1954 at the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of churches he internationalized the Civil Rights Movement in his now famous address, "The Church and Racial Tensions". The United States Congress voted unanimously in 1984 to recommend to President Ronald Reagan that the highest civilian medal of the United States be conferred on Dr. Mays. He received 55 honorary degrees in his lifetime, and his 56th degree posthumously, from Columbia University. Seven academic buildings and an Atlanta street are named in his honor.
For 12 years he was president of the Atlanta School Board following his Morehouse presidency. He was in six school board elections, but never campaigned a day in his life. During this time he presided peacefully over the desegregation of the Atlanta Public Schools. A portrait of him hangs in the South Carolina State House in Columbia, and a million dollar scholarship endowment has been established in his honor by the Board of Trustees of Morehouse College, in addition to two endowed Professorial chairs.

He has been hailed as the mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer and Samuel Woodrow Williams, three civil rights leaders, who were greatly influenced by Dr. Mays' Tuesday Morning Sale Hall Chapel talks and his Howard University Deanship. For 27 years, Dr. Mays planted seeds of revolution in the minds of Morehouse men in the Sale Hall Chapel at Morehouse. And before a crowd of over 200,000 and world television coverage, he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Morehouse College Campus, April 9, 1968. King chose Mays for this distinction. He received over 500 awards and honors in his lifetime, and died March 28th, 1984 lauded as the first citizen of Atlanta.

The funeral of Dr. Mays was held in the Martin Luther King Jr. International chapel on the Morehouse college campus before a capacity congregation over over 2500 persons. Among the eleven speakers were former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter and Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook, '48, President of Dillard University, who delivered the eulogy. the Morehouse College Glee Club, under the direction of Dr. Wendell P. Whalum, sang "Ain't Got Time to Die", "The Impossible Dream," and "Done Done, What You Told Me to Do." Dr. Mays was buried in the Southview Cemetery next to his wife Sadie in a white Georgia marble crypt they both selected. Mrs. Mays passed October 11, 1969. Dr. and Mrs. Mays were reinterred on the Morehouse College campus May 21, 1995, on commencement weekend.


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