Benjamin Elijah Mays, whom Martin Luther King Jr. called his "spiritual mentor", was born August 1, 1894 in Greenwood County, South Carolina. After graduating as high school valedictorian, he attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine where he graduated with honors as a class leader in 1920. He explained his choice of a primarily white, New England college in his 1971 autobiography Born to Rebel, saying "How could I know I was not inferior to the white man, having never had a chance to compete with him?"
Mays then taught at psychology, debate and religion at Morehouse College in Atlanta and pastored Shiloh Avenue Baptist Church before attending the University of Chicago where he earned an MA (1925) and PhD from the School of Religion (1935). With Joseph Nicholson he co-authored The Negro's Church in 1933, a study funded by the Institute of Social and Religious Research.
|With Bates College Debate Team, 1920|
While at Morehouse he excelled at fundraising and other administrative duties, keeping enrollment steady during World War II. He avidly supported students participating in sit-ins during the 1960's, one of a minority of college presidents nationwide to do so. In addition to Dr. King, other alumni he influenced were theologian Howard Thurman, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, and Georgia State Senator Julian Bond. After retirement he served on the Atlanta Board of Education from 1970 to 1981, becoming its first African American president.
Mays died in Atlanta on March 28, 1984 at the age of 89. He was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity. His philosophy of education is reflected in these quotes from Born to Rebel:
"The tragedy doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It isn't a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for."
"To me black power must mean hard work, trained minds, and perfected skills to perform in a competitive society.The injustices imposed upon the black man for centuries make it all the more obligatory that he develop himself…. There must be no dichotomy between the development of one's mind and a deep sense of appreciation of one's heritage. An unjust penalty has been imposed upon the Negro because he is black. The dice are loaded against him. Knowing this, as the Jew knows about anti-Semitism, the black man must never forget the necessity that he perfect his talents and potentials to the ultimate."