BENJAMIN E. MAYS
The men and women in this collection are exceptional because their lives and their accomplishments continue to inspire African-Americans. Benjamin E. Mays, who taught many young men, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (see no. 91), how to turn their finest ideals into a reality, was one of the men who live on as an example and an educator.
Bom to former slaves in Epworth, South Carolina, Mays experienced the violence between races firsthand when his father was attacked by a mob in what is known as the Phoenix Riot of 1898. Mays was only four years old.He was educated in a segregated school, from which he graduated valedictorian before attending Bates College in Maine, where he was elected Phi Beta Kappa.
Mays decided early after graduation to enter the ministry. He worked for his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and served as pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Dedicated to integration and desegregation in America, Mays melded a bond between academia and the church that helped African-Americans work together to fight policies like the “sep¬ arate but equal” doctrine put forth in the case of Plessy v. Fergusson. He said:
“We strive to desegregate and integrate America to the end that this great nation of ours…will truly become the lighthouse of freedom where none will be denied because his skin is black and none favored because his eyes are blue.”To educate all African-Americans on the value of the church in their stmggle, Mays and Joseph W. Nicholson wrote The Negro’s Church in 1930. (Mays con¬ tinued his discourse in The Negro’s God, published in 1968.)
In 1934, Mordecai Johnson (see no. 49) invited Mays to join Howard University as the dean of the School of Religion. Here, working with stu¬ dents like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mays’ influence was invaluable in teaching modem leaders that the church could accompany them as a tool for the ideal of equality.
His stir¬ ring sermons and brilliant lectures gave him a position as one of the most influential religious activists in America.In 1940, Mays left Howard to become President of Morehouse College, an institution known for the quality of its graduates in the fields of medicine, law, engineering and religion. He stayed until 1967, when he was elected to the Atlanta School Board, over which he presided until his retirement in 1981.