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Mays, Benjamin

Black educator and civil rights advocate Benjamin Mays was born in rural South Carolina on August 1, 1895, a son of former slaves turned tenant farmers. Committed to the importance of education, Mays attended several colleges before obtaining his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1935. Even before finishing his doctoral work, Mays had accepted a position as dean of the School of Religion at Howard University. He was a very effective administrator, making a name for Howard and for himself during his tenure there. Mays also traveled a great deal, most notably to India in 1936, where he met with Mahatma Gandhi, exchanging ideas that would later come to fruition during the civil rights movement. In 1938 Mays published The Negro’s God, as Reflected in His Literature, a study of the image and concept of God in African American Christianity.

In 1940, Mays became president of Morehouse College. At Morehouse, he would teach and befriend young Martin Luther King, Jr. At age 72, Mays became the first black president of the Atlanta Board of Education, a position he held for 12 years. After his retirement, Mays remained active socially and was often in demand as a speaker. He also continued to write, publishing two autobiographies, Born to Rebel (1971), and Lord, the People Have Driven Me On (1981). He died in 1984. During his life, he received 49 honorary doctorate degrees.