In the Christian ministry and in the realm of education, the late Dr. Benjamin E. Mays wielded wide influence on a number of future civil rights leaders. Dr. Mays was born on this day in 1894, and we take a look back at his life and legacy.
Mays was born in the small town of Ninety-Six in South Carolina to former slave parents. Although living in the segregated south presented challenges, Mays found a love for the Bible and learning early on, and aimed his energies on using both fields of thought to improve his living standards.
Influenced by the likes of Booker T. Washington and others, Mays completed high school at South Carolina State College and then went on to Bates College in Maine. Although the liberal north was a less hostile environment, as a Black man Mays faced the requisite challenges that race presented in the early 20th Century. However, he excelled as a student at Bates and graduated with honors.
After Bates, Mays went on to the University of Chicago for his graduate studies, eventually earning his doctorate in philosophy in religion from the university while teaching at Howard University. Just ahead of taking the president post at Morehouse College on this same day in 1940, Mays spoke with human rights leader Mahatma Gandhi and that discussion moved him to embrace nonviolence and peaceful resistance which formed the early foundations of the civil rights movement.
At Morehouse, Bates taught and mentored many such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, and Maynard Jackson among others. As a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Mays used the lessons learned in brotherhood and extended it towards his Morehouse students. In his 27-year tenure, Mays improved not only the academic standards of the institution, but also helped formed its lasting legacy as one of the best colleges in the nation.
Mays left Morehouse in 1967 but remained an active public speaker and adviser to colleges just before joining the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education to help supervise the city’s school desegregation policies. He named Alonzo Crim as the city’s first Black school superintendent, and retired in 1981.
Dr. Mays passed in 1984 at the age of 89.
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