Benjamin Elijah Mays–devout Christian minister, uncompromising advocate for justice, career educator and longtime president of Morehouse College in Atlanta–was called the “Schoolmaster of the [civil rights] Movement” by the historian Lerone Bennett Jr. Indeed, among the thousands of proud black men who were shaped by Mays, there were many who played key roles in that movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Julian Bond. Bond, once communications director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and now a university professor and chairman of the board of the NAACP, remembered Mays in a recent interview: “He was the embodiment of everything we wanted to be, and even though we knew we could never achieve his greatness, we strove to be like him. I revered him.”

Bond was not alone in his reverence. In recalling Mays’s influence on her husband, Coretta Scott King wrote in My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr., that her husband’s decision to go into the ministry “was largely due to the example of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays…. From first to last, Dr. Mays took a great interest in Martin. It was not so much that he deliberately guided him toward the ministry as that he influenced Martin by his own example. For although Dr. Mays was brilliant, he was not removed from the heart of the people. In the pulpit he talked a great deal about social justice; you might say he preached a social gospel. This conformed exactly with Martin’s ideas, and it helped to form them…. At Morehouse, listening to Dr. Mays preach…Martin came to see that the ministry could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying.”

Andrew Young, once King’s trusted lieutenant, then Congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta, made the point that the leading black professionals in every city in the country and “most certainly one of the key preachers and probably most of the black elected officials owe where they are to Dr. Mays.”

I am not a Southerner, but I began to sense the power of this extraordinary man when I first stepped onto the lowest level of the national stage. Proud of my two degrees from the University of Michigan, I joined the State Department in 1962 and was mentored by Bob Kitchen, an elegant black Foreign Service officer and a Morehouse graduate. “Too bad you didn’t go to Morehouse,” he said after I had confided uncertainties about my ability to function in Washington. “You could have been raised up by Benny Mays.” Over the years, I learned from a number of other “Morehouse Men” that a central element of Mays’s gift to them was a conviction that their minds and their determination to do right would prevail, no matter how many of the antiblack booby traps embedded in American culture might blow up in their paths.

Considering his inauspicious beginning, no one could have foreseen that Mays would become a shaper of strong men and of events. The year of his birth was 1894; the place, a few miles outside the village of Ninety Six; the state, South Carolina; the parents, former slaves; the race, Negro. Despite all that, the baby born black, poor and Southern would confound stereotypes drawn by a wide variety of Americans; early-twentieth-century white academics, 1960s Black Power advocates and 1980s conservatives. Six years after Mays’s birth, Paul Barringer, who was faculty chair at the University of Virginia, lectured that anything more than “Sunday-school training” was wasted on the black because his lot in life was to be a “source of cheap labor for a warm climate; everywhere else he is a foreordained failure, and as he knows this he despises his own color.” Many decades into Mays’s astonishing life as a pillar of black education and constructive and active citizenship, he and his kind were derided by Black Power advocates of the late 1960s as hopelessly docile and out-of-date. In the 1980s, as Mays’s life was coming to a close, conservatives–black and white together–were claiming to have invented a new remedy for black ills: self-help.

Mays’s powerful, devout and astonishingly constructive life as a world traveler, civil rights stalwart, writer, minister, citizen-activist, educator-mentor and confidant to a wide range of influential national figures, including Presidents, contradicted all these sloppy stereotypes. He was as brilliant as anyone who ever taught at the University of Virginia, a far more effective and long-lasting instrument of black advancement than any of the Black Power leaders and a man for whom black self-help had settled into the core of his moral compass at about the time many of the 1980s conservatives were being born.

Mays was born in the era of the white terror in the South. Blacks were pushed back on all fronts by whites who were determined to “redeem” as much of pre-Civil War dominance as possible and therefore sought to impose black subservience across the board. To this end, the Ku Klux Klan and other night-riding terrorists, aided and abetted by many local law-enforcement agencies, did everything possible–including lynchings–to slam blacks back into the “place” whites believed appropriate. The cast of mind of the majority of South Carolina whites in the days of Mays’s youth is best exemplified in the comment made by Senator Benjamin Tillman after President Theodore Roosevelt had invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.”

The story of how Mays traveled the road from “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman’s South Carolina to the fullness of his maturity, when he had become an important factor in our national life, is a many-faceted example of the black self-help tradition at work at its highest level. That tradition runs back to the time before the United States was a country, when blacks on plantations took care of one another as best they could and began transforming Christianity into a liberation theology. Then, during the Revolution, each side had blacks in its ranks soldiering for, among other reasons, their own freedom as they simultaneously tried to figure out how to purchase liberty for their families as well. In 1787, as great white founders were drafting the Constitution in Philadelphia, the great black founders, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, were also at work in that city, creating the Free African Society, the first formal black self-help group in the country. The tradition continued in the nineteenth century, with Nat Turner’s attempt to wrest freedom forcefully from his owners; through Harriet Tubman’s and Frederick Douglass’s freedom and abolitionary crusades; by black soldiers fighting for the Union and slaves attaching themselves to the conquering Union armies; and finally through the postwar educators–most notably Booker T. Washington–who in the late nineteenth century dedicated their lives to providing education to the newly freed slaves and their children.

In his autobiography, Born to Rebel, Mays wrote that even as a child surrounded by South Carolina cotton fields, “I really wanted to learn…. Vaguely, yet ardently, I longed to know, for I sensed that knowledge could set me free.” But education was hard to come by in Ninety Six, where black cotton-pickers were far more highly prized than black readers. Thus for many years Mays could attend school only in the months from November through February. Another obstacle was his father’s skepticism about the value of an education. But, encouraged by his mother and carried through by a supernatural level of persistence and grit (which included cleaning latrines in the wee hours to pay his keep), Mays managed to finish high school at 21. He then made his way to Bates College in Maine.

As usual, he worked his way through school, graduating with honors, having been a debater and a football player. Bates provided Mays with his first opportunity to make friends with whites. His graduation from Bates began a work-study journey toward a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago, a journey that was punctuated by the ministry as pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta; his apprenticeship as an educator at Morehouse and the South Carolina high school, from which he had graduated; and community-service work with the Tampa Urban League and later as national student secretary of the YMCA. During this period Mays married and then suffered the loss of his wife, Ellen, and subsequently married Sadie Gray, who had been a high school classmate.

This rich tapestry of experiences gave Mays deep, firm roots in the Southern black community and a certain ironic knowledge of life in the liberal North, where he encountered the legendary racism of Chicago–including from some of his professors at the university who would not speak to him outside the classroom. A few months before the award of his doctorate, Mays was appointed dean of the school of religion at Howard University, a job that he held with great distinction for six years until, in 1940, he assumed the presidency of Morehouse.

Mays brought his profound faith in God, his deep understanding of the Bible and of the Negro church, and his experience as an educator to Howard. During his six years there, the school gained accreditation by the American Association of Theological Schools–the second black seminary to achieve that status. While Mays was dean, Howard Divinity School sent forth a large number of men who would become major leaders of the church and of society. During that period, Mays broadened his perspective by traveling a good deal–most significantly to South Africa and to India, where he and Gandhi had deep exchanges on the philosophy and tactics of nonviolent social activism.

Mays needed all his faith, his deep learning, his passion for rendering service and his enormous energy when he became president of Morehouse, which was then the impoverished weak sister of black higher education in Atlanta and was rapidly falling toward junior-college status. As president, he set out to correct all the institution’s problems; by the time he retired twenty-seven years later, both he and the college were legendary. Mays left a solvent college with an excellent faculty and many buildings that hadn’t been there when he took over. But most important of all, he made Morehouse Men–legions of them–whom he sent out into the world in the mold of Benjamin Mays.

When I told Washington businessman and civic activist James Hudson, Morehouse ’61, the story about my State Department colleague Bob Kitchen from Brunswick, Georgia, Jim said: “That’s what he did. He went around to all those little towns in Georgia–and other states too–and found these smart small-town boys with limited futures and brought them to Morehouse. Some of these kids hadn’t even finished high school, but he had developed a special program for any really promising students he discovered.” (Martin Luther King Jr. entered Morehouse in 1944, when he was 15.)

“Mays got to us through those Tuesday chapel sessions,” Hudson said. “He told us, ‘Yes there is segregation, but your mind is free. Your job is to cultivate your mind to its fullest extent. Now segregation is a reality, but it is not an excuse. What is important is to make your mind work.'”

Both Hudson and Bond describe a Morehouse that was suffused with the personality and drive of this energetic, religious, loving, service-giving man. He worked ceaselessly to drive the hesitation and self-doubt that segregation was designed to implant in the black spirit right out of every man who came to Morehouse. The Morehouse Man was to be a man of dignity and pride and intellect and faith and commitment to justice–in a word, he was to be like Mays. Everyone I have ever known who went to Morehouse in his time carried a large dose of Benjamin Mays in his spirit. Mays made sure that he knew each and every Morehouse Man very well and that each of them had felt his expectations of them, both individually and through his weekly appearance at chapel, where he addressed them all.

“You knew, if you let yourself down you were letting him down,” Hudson said. “You know, in all father-son relationships there’s bound to be some friction generated by family stuff and household intimacy. With Mays, it was like a clean father-son relationship.” Both Bond and Hudson describe an indefatigable model that was as clear in both word and deed as a human being could be. “The big reason people trusted him,” Hudson said, “was the way he lived his life; no women, no money problems. And the interest in you was real. Long after you had left, he would follow you, check on you, see how you were doing and give you encouragement.”

That comment reminded me of a remarkable encounter I had with Mays in Washington sometime in the late 1970s, long after he had left Morehouse. After some major African-American event had ended in a Washington hotel and most of the people had left, I spotted him sitting alone at a large table looking thoughtfully toward the door through which the last stragglers were drifting away. I had met Mays briefly and casually a couple of times over the years, so I went over to pay my respects to him and, to my surprise, he invited me to sit down.

I was somewhat stunned that he remembered me and that he knew what I was doing for a living. After we talked about journalism a bit, he gave me a searching look and asked: “Has being Roy Wilkins’s nephew been a burden to you?” My eyes widened at his directness and his perceptiveness, but I answered. “It has been–sometimes more than others, but yes–a burden along with the blessings.” Mays smiled and said: “Cherish the blessings and ignore the burdens. Just do your work–your best work.” I remembered my old friend Bob Kitchen then, and his comment that “Benny Mays could have raised you up.” Indeed.

Mays’s life was full of activities beyond the campus. Most notably, he served a term in the 1970s as president of the Atlanta Board of Education, where he led the effort to devise a program to desegregate the schools without sending the white population fleeing to the suburbs. He was a force in the National and the World Council of Churches, a member of the board of the NAACP and committee member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was one of the black leaders to whom Presidents Kennedy and Johnson turned during the turbulent 1960s. Kennedy intended to nominate him to a seat on the US Commission on Civil Rights, but the move was blocked by Georgia senators who charged that he was a Communist because of his memberships in organizations fighting lynching and seeking to improve black education in the South. Mays denied being a Communist. “They don’t believe in God,” Mays said. “I couldn’t belong to a group that doesn’t accept God.” Kennedy appointed him to the Peace Corps Advisory Council instead, and later included Mays in the US delegation that attended the funeral of Pope John XXIII. Though he received fifty-five honorary degrees from colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, Mays said that the renaming of a black church in Ninety Six, South Carolina–Mays United Methodist–was the most touching honor he had ever received.

“I have never done anything for the purpose of being honored, to have my name on the front pages of the newspapers,” Mays once said. “I have done what I believe I was sent into the world to do: worship my God and serve my fellow man.” This view was embedded in a homely understanding of life: “We all travel the same road from our mother’s womb to the grave. So there’s no need of anybody getting chesty. We travel the same highway.”

Well, maybe. Julian Bond observed, “First he built himself, then he built Morehouse Men.” Benjamin Mays would be entitled to become a little chesty about the fact that so many Morehouse Men try hard to travel that highway in the way they were taught by the incomparable “schoolmaster of the movement.”