Meet Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Civil Rights Movement
By Randal Maurice Jelks | January 18, 2013
On April 9, 1968, Benjamin Elijah Mays had the burdensome honor of delivering a eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr. on the campus of Morehouse College. During that somber moment, the retired college president faced a crowd that stretched as far as the eye could see. They were looking to Mays for words of comfort and inspiration as they tried to comprehend the civil rights leader’s assassination and to summon the courage to continue the struggle.
Over the course of his lengthy career, Mays had eulogized numerous prominent figures within the circles of black colleges and black communities, but King’s eulogy was different in scale. It was to be given before the glaring spotlights and television cameras of the national and international press and would be beamed via satellite to audiences around the world. Before a world audience, he would have to restrain his own angry brokenheartedness. His task was difficult. He had to give tribute, provide comfort, and buoy the struggle for justice.
Mays was also mourning the loss of his spiritual son. King had been his student at Morehouse, which Mays had led as president for 27 years. King had figuratively grown up in the Mayses’ home since the age of 15. For the 13 years of King’s public career, Mays had served as one of his closest confidantes. Lerone Bennett, one of King’s classmates at Morehouse who became senior editor of Ebony magazine, captured Mays’s significance when he called him “the last great school master.” Mays, who defended students’ right to protest and boycott businesses that discriminated, was the most beloved president among those of Atlanta’s historically black colleges, as Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, recalled. According to Edelman, “He inspired and taught and stood by us when we challenged Atlanta’s racial discrimination. Some of his teachings I wrote in my college diary. Others, I internalized, and like many others who heard him frequently, I shared his words with others.”
Mays promoted African Americans’ educational aspirations and helped to define the theological dimensions of the civil rights movement in ways that few other black intellectuals were able to do. Through most of his life, he had worked in the South, led black institutions, and advocated a commitment to social justice among American Protestants. His teachings and example inspired generations of African American students and clergy to develop their intellectual talents and calibrate their ethical compass in order to challenge injustice. But of all that Mays accomplished in his life, he would be remembered primarily as King’s mentor.
BORN IN 1894 IN RURAL Epworth, South Carolina, to parents who were ex-slaves and who toiled as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, Mays experienced firsthand the degradation and terror of the Jim Crow South. He grew up in the Afro-Baptist tradition that had melded the Atlantic world’s revivalist movement with the folk theology and spiritual practices of African-inspired slave religion. Mays saw the Afro-Baptist faith tradition as a survival mechanism that enabled blacks to endure social evils rather than as a way to change them. In his young adulthood, Mays recognized that southern racism itself was rooted in biblical literalism and Christian fundamentalism. He believed that both white and black religious ignorance contributed to the maintenance of the antidemocratic spirit that underpinned social injustice.
Having grown up in this milieu, Mays felt both a calling to the ministry and a passion for higher education. He attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he first encountered modern biblical scholarship and began to espouse the Social Gospel as expressed in the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch. His theological liberalism matured at the University of Chicago, where he studied with Shirley Jackson Case, Henry Wieman, and Edwin Aubrey. Mays received his M.A. in New Testament studies in 1925 and his Ph.D. in theology in 1935. His scholarly work centered on the critical investigation of black religiosity and institutional history. In The Negro’s Church, coauthored by Joseph Nichols (1933), and The Negro’s God (1938), he added his voice to a tradition of black Social Gospel thought that began in the late nineteenth century.
Ordained by the Baptists in 1921, Mays served only three years as a church pastor before his career shifted toward academic leadership. He served as dean of the Howard University School of Religion (now Howard University Divinity School) from 1934 until 1940, when Mays was then selected as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1944, Mays was elected vice-president of the Federal Council of Churches (today the National Council of Churches of Christ), becoming the first black American to hold that office in any ecumenical body.
Mays, as King testified, had been significant in his life and influential in his calling to be a Baptist minister. Mays was also one of the clergy members who listened to his trial sermon and ordained him. When King decided to attend seminary in 1948, at the age of nineteen, it was Mays who had written a key recommendation on King’s behalf. Although King was a very young and academically middling student while at Morehouse, Mays wrote to Crozier Seminary admissions officers that King had a “good mind” and he believed him worthy of admission. Mays believed Crozier was an ideal place for King, where he could develop more academic discipline in preparation for his career in ministry. King, in fact, excelled there. He then followed in Mays’s footsteps by seeking a Ph.D. in theology.
Starting in 1956, King began to overshadow his mentor. King was then the twenty-seven-year-old elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization in charge of leading the Montgomery bus boycott. King was young, articulate, and perfectly camera-ready for the emerging television news media. Although he had some promising political skills, he was hardly the mature person or leader the media made him out to be. King realized that he had been drawn into a political vortex that put unimaginable demands on his life. In those earliest days in Montgomery, when he was initially drawn into the national spotlight, he needed a persona with more gravitas than his young age afforded him. As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and King, without question, modeled his earliest public persona after Mays.
Now in his sixties, Mays was more than happy to give King the kind of support he needed as he took the national spotlight as one of the leading figures in the black freedom struggle. In addition, King’s initial activism brought invaluable national attention and prominence to Morehouse College. In the spring of 1957, Mays saw to it that the young King was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters for his courageous leadership in the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott. Mays said in his commendation:
You are mature beyond years, wiser at twenty-eight than most men at sixty; more courageous in the righteous struggle than most men can ever be; living faith that most men preach about but never experience. Significant is the fact that you did not seek leadership in the Montgomery controversy. It was thrust upon you by the people. You did not betray the trust of the leadership. You led people with great dignity, Christian grace, and determined purpose. While you were away, your colleagues in the battle for freedom were being hounded and arrested like criminals. When it was suggested by legal counsel that you might stay away and avoid arrest, I heard you say with my own ears: “I would rather spend ten years in jail than desert the people in crisis.” At that moment, my heart, my mind, and my soul stood erect and saluted you. I knew then that you were called to leadership for just such a time as this.
As King contemplated his mission and the future of the civil rights movement after Montgomery, he would turn to Mays time and again for advice as the politics of the movement became tempestuous and surged onto the streets of America. In forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King relied heavily on Mays’s conviction that ministers were significant grass-roots leaders in the fight for civil rights. The SCLC’s motto, “To Redeem the Soul of America,” was a phrase that Mays had quoted from Walter Rauschenbusch’s work.
From the Montgomery bus boycott forward, Mays would publicly advocate on King’s behalf. He explained to both white and black audiences what King was trying to accomplish socially and politically. Mays would remain steadfastly committed to King throughout his life. Mays and his wife Sadie never had children and King, we can infer, was the son he never had.
THE ASSASSINATION OF KING on April 4, 1968, devastated Mays. King had often shared with Mays his premonitions about being killed. In a 1963 letter Mays wrote to King shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he cautioned King about his own vulnerability. He emotively wrote, “President Kennedy’s death was almost more than I could take. If they hated him, they love you less. I hope that you will take every precaution as you move around.” His letter was hauntingly prescient. According to Coretta Scott King, Mays came to visit her the night of her husband’s assassination. She told him, “You know, Dr. Mays, Martin always said he wanted you to do his eulogy.” To which Mays replied, “I always wanted him to preach mine.”
King’s funeral was held at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was a hot spring day and the temperature soared into the high 80s. Usually on Sundays, Ebenezer, a church founded by ex-slaves, overflowed with black members and visitors. However, for the first time in the church’s history, members were forced to stand outside of their own sanctuary as the crowd of mostly white dignitaries occupied their seats for King’s funeral. King’s funeral plan also included a silent march from Ebenezer to the grounds of Morehouse College, where an open service would include all who wish to attend.
The five-mile march and the sweltering heat that day diminished the energies of the marchers and those who waited for the procession to arrive. It ran an hour late. The crowd was tired, and many suffered heat exhaustion as the huge entourage escorting King’s mule-drawn coffin walked onto Morehouse’s campus. When the King family arrived, shortly after the processional ended, the crowd turned a bit raucous and angry. According to Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Sr., sensing the restlessness of the crowd, commanded Abernathy: “Get Mays up there, Ralph, so we can end it.” Cutting out many other preachers who were expected to give addresses, Abernathy introduced Mays so the program would come to a close. The crowd could barely hear Mays as a result of a poor sound system; however, he delivered the most memorable tribute, other than King’s own recorded version of the “Drum Major Instinct,” given that long, hot day.
Mays deployed all of the great rhetorical devices he had gleaned as a public speaker; he captured the moment, the deep sense of hurt and the outrage of the audience. He bellowed out to the hot and exhausted crowd how Martin Luther King Jr. had been purposeful and constructive with his life. He reminded them of their own duty to do the same:
If we love Martin Luther King, Jr., and respect him, as this crowd surely testifies, let us see to it that he did not die in vain; let us see to it that we do not dishonor his name by trying to solve our problems through rioting in the streets. Violence was foreign to his nature. He warned that continued riots could produce a Fascist state. But let us see to it also that conditions that cause riots are promptly removed, as the President of the United States is trying to get us to do. Let black and white alike search their hearts; and if there be prejudice in our hearts, let us exterminate it and let us pray, as Martin Luther King, Jr., would if he could: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. If we do this, Martin Luther King, Jr., will have died a redemptive death from which all mankind will benefit.
His eulogy was brilliant. With his impassioned words, he prodded blacks to turn their collective grief and outrage into hope for the future. The reality of the matter was that King was dead, and from that moment, the intellectual landscape that governed the civil rights movement, which Mays had powerfully influenced, would be changed. Rage and cynicism ran rampant among young black people toward the country where a person who advocated Christian love and constructive social policies could be assassinated. The coalition of faith fragmented.
More than forty years later, we realize that Mays was eulogizing not only his spiritual son but also the civil rights mass protest that had emerged in the South during the postwar years and sparked a massive political rebellion on city streets across the nation. The irony of that funerary occasion was not lost on him: Jim Crow had finally been vanquished, but King, along with many other leaders and activists, had been struck down. Mays stood not in triumph but in grief before a crowd as large as the one present in the last days of the 1965 march from Selma to the state capitol of Alabama.
Soon a new generation of elected politicians and civic activists would take responsibility for the issues of citizenship, economic justice, and peace that remained unresolved. On that day, though, Mays was the man of the hour, drawing on his hard-won wisdom, long-term perspective, and unshaken faith in order to explain what King’s life meant to the nation and the world, then and in the future. His funeral oration emphasized the theological foundations and ethical dimensions of this democratic movement for social change.
Randal Maurice Jelks is an associate professor of American Studies with a joint appointment in African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. He is author of Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement, from which this article was adapted.
From BENJAMIN ELIJAH MAYS, SCHOOLMASTER OF THE MOVEMENT: A BIOGRAPHY by Randal Maurice Jelks. Copyright 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.edu
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