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Ursula Rothrock
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Biography of civil rights leader wins award for portrayal of social justice

Thu, 08/29/2013

LAWRENCE — Five decades after a pivotal year in American history that included Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, a biography of King’s mentor has won a major book award. The biography authored by a faculty member at the University of Kansas chronicles the life and impact of Benjamin Elijah Mays, whom King called his "spiritual and intellectual father."

Randal Jelks, associate professor of American studies and African-American studies at KU, was awarded the 2013 Lillian Smith Book Award for “Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement.” More information about the book is available here.

The unique award honors Lillian Smith, the acclaimed author of “Strange Fruit.” The award was established shortly after her death in 1966. Smith, a white writer of the South, spoke out against the racial segregation and social injustice of the mid-20th century. Her literary work reflected her focus on social justice for the South. The Lillian Smith award goes to authors who enhance racial awareness in their work through literary merit, moral vision and honest representation of the South. 

Jelks will accept the award Sunday, Sept. 1, in Atlanta. The award is sponsored by the Southern Regional Council, the University of Georgia Libraries, DeKalb County Public Library and the Georgia Center for the Book.

Jelks’ book tells the story of Mays’ life and his influence on the civil rights movement in America. Mays was an educational leader for the black church, activists, policymakers and educators. He used Christian messages to connect the church’s role to the civil rights movement. This focus on Christian themes in the civil rights movement influenced many black leaders of the time.

The award comes at a time when America remembers and reflects on the civil rights movement, commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s iconic speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Mays, then president of Morehouse College, concluded the march’s program on Aug. 28, 1963, with the official benediction.

The departments of American Studies and African and African-American Studies are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at KU. 



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