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.