Dr. Mays’ life was an authentic example of the quest for excellence across all levels of human endeavors. His advocacy for social justice and rights – for all to share equal pathways toward becoming successful in society – ignited a lasting conversation on individual and human rights, earning him a place among the founding fathers of the modern civil rights movement.
March 28 marked the 29th anniversary of Dr. Mays’ death.
DURING HIS lifetime, Dr. Mays not only spoke from a can-do perspective, but demonstrated this precept in his own desire to acquire an education. Walking seven miles to and from the one-room schoolhouse he attended during his early education was evident of the values he placed on education. Dr. Mays offered no excuses for his plight.
Born in poverty with the knowledge that his mother and father were former slaves and worked as sharecroppers on the farm where they lived, Mays projected a forward glance not about what was but what could be. The youngest in a family of eight siblings, Mays moved self-assuredly toward his educational pursuits. Today Dr. May’s childhood home is a historical site and museum in Greenwood County, S.C.
Defying Bates College’s earlier denial of his admission to the institution, Mays reapplied and became a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the Maine school in 1920 with his bachelor’s degree. He received his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1925, and his Ph.D. degree from the School of Religion at the University of Chicago in 1935.
Dr. Mays’ devotion to education and his strong leadership skills made him an outstanding candidate to lead the Atlanta public schools’ desegregation effort. He was the first African-American elected president of the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education in 1967, after his retirement from the presidency of Morehouse College.
OVER HIS VAST and exceptional career, he was awarded 56 honorary degrees, one posthumously from Columbia University. Dr. Mays is credited with authoring nine books and more than 2,000 articles. Honoring his lifetime achievement and his ability to reach each generation in which he lived, the Benjamin E. Mays Center is named in his honor at Bates College, as is Mays Hall in the School of Divinity at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta.
As a pastor and scholar, Dr. Mays was devoted to service. He participated in advancing the call for others to play a role in giving back to their communities. Among his stellar list of organizations in which he was a member were the Southern Conference Education Fund; the Peace Corps Advisory Committee; the United Negro College Fund; the World Council of Churches; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
HE WAS A visionary in institutional leadership. As dean of the School of Religion at Howard University, his hard work and scholarship led the school to national prominence. Morehouse College also was a platform where Dr. Mays would touch and inspire a whole new generation of young men toward being the best they could be. This spirit prevails today among Morehouse men.
Becoming president of Morehouse College in 1940 launched Dr. Mays into international recognition. Academic excellence, character development, humanity, perseverance, scholarship, religious conviction and commitment toward creating positive change were hallmarks of Dr. Mays’ 27-year tenure at Morehouse. His wife, the former Sadie Gray, whom he married in 1926, also was an outstanding educator, teacher and social worker. Their partnership lasted 43 years, ending in her death in 1969.
During Dr. Mays’ travels to India, he met and talked with Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi’s approach to nonviolent civil disobedience captured Dr. Mays’ imagination. He would later share this paradigm shift to achieving social equality with his most celebrated pupil, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Likewise, Dr. King would travel to India in July 1959, with an official invitation from the Gandhi Memorial Trust to study firsthand Gandhi’s philosophy.
KING ENROLLED in Morehouse at age 15 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1948. Dr. Mays inspired him and became his mentor until Dr. King’s untimely death April 4, 1968. Prior to his death, Dr. King requested Dr. Mays to deliver his eulogy in the event of his death. Dr. May delivered that eulogy with the sentiments of a father, and hailed him as a champion for civil rights for all humanity.
Dr. Mays gave hope to countless people caught in the grip of poverty and poor beginnings. His messages of never surrendering were heard by many. After a lifetime of service, the strong yet gentle, humble warrior Dr. Mays died in Atlanta on March 28, 1984. He and his beloved wife are entombed on the Morehouse campus.
At the University of Georgia in Athens, we always were excited when Dr. Mays spoke to the campus community. His optimism was obvious. My classmates and I believed that we too could become what we desired, despite the odds. Those of us who were in love with late-morning sleep rose early to get front-row seats to hear Dr. Mays at the university. We knew that we were in the presence of greatness.
(The writer, an Augusta native, is a part-time psychology faculty member at Georgia Regents University.)