LAWRENCE — Benjamin E. Mays is often remembered as Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor, yet many historians have overlooked Mays’ legacy as an educator and theologian in the Civil Rights Era.
Randal Jelks, associate professor of American studies at the University of Kansas, has written a new biography of Mays (1894-1984) that recognizes “that the Civil Rights Movement was as much a theological struggle as it was a secular social democratic movement.”
Jelks’ book, “Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement,” will be released in April 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.
“Before 1955, Mays’ reputation rivaled Booker T. Washington,” as the most widely known black educator in the country, Jelks notes.
Jelks follows Mays from childhood — the youngest of eight children of former slaves — to his presidency of Morehouse College and his world-renowned ecumenical leadership through retirement when Mays led the peaceful integration of Atlanta’s public schools.
The biography begins not with Mays’ birth in rural South Carolina, but with King’s funeral on April 9, 1968, in Atlanta.
Mays had just retired from a 27-year presidency at Morehouse College. Mays had once hoped that his former student King would deliver his eulogy when the time came. But death threats had prompted King to ask his spiritual mentor, Mays, to give his eulogy should the unthinkable occur.
Jelks observes that Mays eulogized not only his spiritual son but also the civil rights protest that had emerged in the South during the postwar years and sparked a massive political rebellion on city streets across the nation.
Mays stood out among the black leaders who for decades had struggled against racial segregation before African-Americans’ drive for full citizenship became a national story. He inspired generations of African-American students and clergy to challenge injustice, including King.
King and Mays formed a bond in 1944 when King entered Morehouse at age 15 as a freshman. King is among a host of Morehouse graduates from Mays’ presidency who became leaders in their fields, including Lerone Bennett, who served as executive editor of Ebony magazine for 40 years; Robert E. Johnson, former executive editor and associate publisher of Jet magazine; Maynard H. Jackson, first African-American mayor of Atlanta; Walter E. Massy, former director of National Science Foundation and president of Morehouse; Earl F. Hilliard, Alabama congressman; Reginald C. Lindsay, U.S. federal judge, Massachusetts; and Herman Cain, former chairman of Godfather’s Pizza, Inc., and former candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Mays saw that faith was a survival mechanism that enabled blacks to endure injustice rather than seek to change it.
“He believed that both black and white religious ignorance contributed to the maintenance of anti-democratic spirit that underpinned social injustice,” Jelks writes. Education and the ministry became Mays’ tools for change.
Mays’ own education did not come easily. He was a top student, but his father, a tenant farmer, saw no value in education beyond the third grade. Despite family quarrels, Mays earned his way through high school, cleaning outhouses. He worked summers as a railroad porter to attend Bates College in Maine. He taught math and debate at Morehouse for a few years before earning a master’s degree at the University of Chicago. He held administrative posts with the Urban League and with the YMCA before completing a doctorate in religion in 1935, also at Chicago.
Mays served as dean of Howard University’s School of Religion (now a school of divinity) before returning to Morehouse. He and his faculty worked to establish the school as a leader in black theological modernism as well as a think tank for nonviolent resistance to injustice as inspired by Mohandas Gandhi. Mays and Gandhi had met in South Africa.
“Mays' genius was his ability to dwell at the epicenter of black life as a clergyman, educator and proponent of civil rights in addition to being a bridge to white Protestants. He was an active leader in both the national and international ecumenical movements that significantly reshaped American Protestantism. He did this by primarily remaining rooted in southern regional culture,” Jelks writes.
Mays’ autobiography, “Born to Rebel” in 1971, one of nine books he published, covers his thoughts on race and religion, but does not address all aspects of his life, particularly his final decade, Jelks notes.
Jelks is co-editor of the journal American Studies and is author of “African Americans in the Furniture City: the Civil Rights Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan.” At KU, Jelks holds courtesy appointments in history and religious studies. In addition to degrees in history — a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a doctoral degree from Michigan State University, Jelks has a master’s of divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church.