Kristi Henderson
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Professor’s biography of mentor to Civil Rights activists wins award

Tue, 03/05/2013

LAWRENCE – The biography of Civil Rights mentor Benjamin E. Mays by a University of Kansas professor has been recognized as one of the top nonfiction works by an African-American author in 2012.

Randal Jelks, associate professor of American studies and African and African-American studies, was selected as the recipient of the 2013 Literary Award for Nonfiction from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. It is one of a handful of awards given by the organization to recognize excellence in adult fiction and nonfiction by African-American authors.

Jelks’ book “Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement” was released in April 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. 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.

The award adds further recognition for the biography, which has interested readers and scholars across the country. Jelks has traveled to nearly a dozen states to talk about his book, including a panel discussion that was broadcast on C-SPAN.

“I am thrilled to receive the attention for something I worked on for years,” Jelks said. “It is also gratifying to me because the two departments that I am affiliated with get recognition by me being asked to speak at so many places. It is a double win.”

Jelks has said his biography of Mays (1894-1984) recognizes “that the Civil Rights Movement was as much a theological struggle as it was a secular social democratic movement.”

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.

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.

The Black Caucus of the American Library Association serves as an advocate for the development, promotion and improvement of library services and resources to the nation's African American community and provides leadership for the recruitment and professional development of African-American librarians.

The Departments of American Studies and African and African-American Studies are part of KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which encourages learning without boundaries in its more than 50 departments, programs and centers. Through innovative research and teaching, the College emphasizes interdisciplinary education, global awareness and experiential learning. It is the broadest and most diverse academic unit at KU.

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