In the first full-length biography of Benjamin Elijah Mays (1894-1984), Randal Maurice Jelks chronicles the life of the man Martin Luther King Jr. called his “spiritual and intellectual father.” Dean of the Howard University School of Religion, president of Morehouse College, and mentor to influential black leaders, Mays had a profound impact on the education of the leadership of the black church and of a generation of activists, policymakers, and educators. To learn more, read our interview with Jelks.
In the following excerpt from Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography, we get a glimpse of how Mays influenced others as well as the geographic, spiritual, and educational elements that influenced Mays (pp. 1-2, 7, 8):
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. Time Magazine photographer Flip Schulke captured the 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. Of all that Mays accomplished in his life, he would be remembered primarily as King’s mentor. Yet Mays had a long career as a distinguished educator, liberal theologian, and unwavering advocate of civil and human rights. Through most of his life, he had worked in the South, led black institutions, and advocated a commitment to social justice among American Protestants. Mays stood out among the black leaders who sustained the struggle against segregation for decades before African Americans’ drive for full citizenship burst into the national spotlight. 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.
Looking at Schulke’s photograph 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. Mays’s own life took him from the nadir of Jim Crow in the Deep South, to the long march of civil rights agitation and education, to the culmination of the Black Freedom struggle in the late 1960s. Long before King began his ministry in Montgomery, Mays had advocated that black churches become centers of civil rights activism, and he was delighted when they nurtured a democratic movement that brought down the walls of racial segregation in the United States. He had seen his dreams fulfilled by King’s rise to national prominence from the ranks of Morehouse graduates and black Protestant clergy. 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.
Mays’s long career serves as a window on African American life in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. Born in 1894 in rural Epworth, South Carolina, to parents who were ex-slaves and who toiled as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, he 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. For Mays, this form of Christianity emphasized the “otherworldly” dimension of faith. Its teachings were highly moralistic, and clergy with little formal education led it. Mays saw the Afro-Baptist faith tradition as a survival mechanism that enabled black 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.
[ . . . ]
Mays’s voice and perspective were distinctly southern. For a long time, so much emphasis had been placed on the intellectual work and cultural production centered in the Northeast and in the 1920s through the 1960s that regional variation in black intellectual traditions and cultural attitudes has been ignored until recently. As Mays wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “I am a Southerner. With the exception of eight years of college and graduate study in New England and the Middle West, I have elected to live in the South.” He stayed in the South because he was convinced that his best work could be done there. For Mays, being a southerner meant staying in touch with his roots in rural culture and affirming the communal ties of family and religion that were the legacy of the slave community. He understood that only a mass movement of southern blacks could jolt the region out of its impoverishment, which was maintained by white supremacy, to precipitate a nationwide transformation. Mays’s southern roots gave him greater authority as he exhorted black and white Christians to take up social action based upon their faith commitments. This he believed was in keeping with the best of the Baptist social teaching.
[ . . . ]
Benjamin Elijah Mays had lived through the most trying times of the twentieth century. He had developed an approach to theology and education that brought the resources of mind and spirit to bear upon vital social issues and to sustain a democratic faith. This faith inspired generations of black Christians to persevere in the struggle for liberation and the transformation of American society. Mays stands as a towering figure at the crossroads of black intellectual life, religious institutional life, and civil rights activism. Examining his life and ideas sheds a powerful light on the decades of systematic work that laid the foundation for the religiously based, theologically informed, and ethically guided movement for justice that reshaped the United States in the mid-twentieth century.
From Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement, by Randal Maurice Jelks. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Randal Maurice Jelks is associate professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. Visit his website randalmauricejelks.com and follow him on Twitter @drjelks. Learn more and keep up with events at the book’s Facebook page.
-  Martin Luther King Jr., “Statement Regarding the Retirement of Benjamin E. Mays,” King Center Archives, Atlanta, GA., 1967, 1; Linda Williams, “Molding Men: At Morehouse College, Middle-Class Blacks are Taught to Lead,” Wall Street Journal, May 5, 1987, 1, 25; Frank J. Prial, “Benjamin Mays, Educator, Dies; Served as Inspiration to Dr. King,” New York Times, March 29, 1984, D.23; Flip Schulke’s photograph of Mays can be found in Time Magazine, April 19, 1968, in the article titled “King’s Last March,” 18. ↩
-  Benjamin Mays, “A Negro Educator Gives His Views,” Christian Science Monitor, January 19, 1957, 22. ↩
-  These volumes on the religious dimension of the civil rights movement are indispensable. The richness of this literature began with Robert Wiesbrot’s study On Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial equality (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), which was followed up by Jill Watt’s book God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) on the same subject. Ralph Luker’s The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992) is indispensable in this discussion. Other rich studies are Judith Weisenfeld, Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), and, most recently, Wallace Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005); Cynthia Taylor, A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of An African American Labor Leader New York: New York University Press, 2006); and Edward Blum’s two volumes, W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Pres, 2007) and Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), as well as Paul Harvey’s Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists, 1865-1925 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992) and Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). ↩
-  The study of Mays owes a debt to several fine historians and four important works. Paul Harvey, in Freedom’s Coming explains that “theological racism” was at the heart of the struggle between blacks and whites throughout the American South. He defines theological racism as “the conscious use of religious doctrine and practice to create and enforce social hierarchies and privileged southerners of European descent, who were legally classified and socially privileged as white, while degrading southerners of African descent, who were legally categorized and socially stigmatized as black” (2). Harvey notes that this system was deeply entrenched but contested by multiple readings of the Bible. He concludes, “In the twentieth century, this theology of race was radically overturned in part through a re-imagination of the same Christian thought that was part of its creation. By the 1960s, segregationists defended Jim Crow more on emotional (‘our way of life’), practical (‘tradition’), and constitutional (‘states rights’) than theological grounds. In doing so, they lost the battle to spiritually inspired activists who deconstructed Jim Crow” (2). I argue in this book that no one was more important to the task of “spiritually” deconstructing Jim Crow than Benjamin Mays. Mays was at the top of a most distinguished class of religious radicals, “such as Howard ‘Buck’ Kester, Myles Horton, Modjeska Simkins, Ella Baker, Gordon Blaine Hancock, Lillian Smith, Nelle Moron, Charles Jones, Virginia Durr, Glenn Smiley, Septima Clark, and Jo Ann Gibson Robinson,” to name only a few (49). This study explores the linkages between the civil rights movement as a movement for a democratic social change and its religious dimensions by putting a black religious intellectual more fully into the historical record. We should remember, as historian Dennis Dickerson has so cogently reminded students of American civil rights history, that religiously grounded intellectuals like Mays helped shape the civil rights movement ideologically long before Martin Luther King Jr. arrived on the scene.
Mays was also a part of a generation of American liberal theologians who spoke to the wider American public, as historian Gary Dorrien has shown in his histories of modern theology in the United States, most especially The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 (Louisville, KY.: Wesminster John Knox Press, 2003). This generation of theologians, though modernists in orientation, maintained ties to American Protestant denominations as worship leaders, preachers, and public intellectuals. Mays’s peers included Harry Emerson Fosdick, the Niebuhr brothers, and Paul Tillich. But Mays, living under legal and cultural segregation in the American South, could speak only to issues primarily concerning the conditions of black Americans. Mays presented his theological criticisms in whatever forum he was allowed to speak or write. Mays urged both black and white Americans to resist the rule of white supremacy in the United States and throughout the world. He was firmly convinced that his brand of theology, derived from the human experiences of black America, was important not only to Americans but also to the people of the world, especially in the emerging democracies in Asia and Africa. In this regard, Dorrien brands Mays as a public theologian because much of his work involved achieving social justice within the bounds of Protestant theology. Unlike his white peers, Mays did not receive as much scholarly attention inside academic seminaries and in the white-dominated mass media, but Dorrien recognizes his theological writings and sermons as having had far more currency than is widely appreciated.
By placing May’s public theology back into the historical picture, we get a broader perspective of how the civil rights movement and other social struggles were ideologically actualized. It is unfortunate that many fine studies on the American civil rights movement that consider religion, and especially as it relates to the movement in the late 1950s through the 1960s, do so by only looking at Martin Luther King Jr., and the curiously associate King only with the legendary, if not overrated, neoorthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr without ever acknowledging that King was introduced to Niebuhr through a mediating lens of black religious thinkers. A side effect is that many King scholars have not looked for sources emanating out of black religious institutions to support their narratives because they have not dug deep enough into the written record of black religious thought. Therefore, readers of American history are often left with a prevailing narrative that Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought was central to Martin Luther King Jr.’s analysis of American theology and American racism. Unfortunately, this linear narrative fits too neatly into an already existing paradigm of anti-intellectualism that scholars unwittingly employ to describe the activism that black Christians used in redressing larger social inequities. In this regard, Niebuhr is given too much credit and black religious thinkers like Mays have been given too little credit.
The third book to which this study owes a very big debt is Barbara Dianne Savage’s Your Spirit Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008). Savage places Mays in a fuller context of black intellectual thought in her discussion of the role of “the Negro Church” in the civil rights struggle. Her study puts Mays back into a larger context of black thought with many of his contempraries—Mary Macleod Bethune, W.E.B. DuBois, E. Franklin Frazier, and Nannie Burroughs, to name only a few—regarding what role black religiosity and black Protestantism played in shaping black communities in their democratic struggle. Savage underscores what became apparent to me as I culled through Mays’s writings about black religious faith, black Protestantism, and the struggle for civil rights, which was that more that was expected of “the Negro’s Church” and its clerics than any one organization or group of leaders could bear. Religious formulations—moral suasion and prophetic jeremiads– did motivate people to be socially engaged in changing exclusive legal structures, but religion by itself was inadequate to address larger endemic problems in the society as a whole.
The fourth book that informs this biography is Curtis J. Evans’s The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). The significance of Evans is its important intervention on how religion has been used as a marker of blackness in American culture. “Black religion,” he writes, “became the chief bearer of meaning and status for the nature and place of blacks in America because of questions raised by the early conversion of Slaves to Christianity. . . . ‘Black Religion,’ whether conceptualized variously by whites and blacks as amorphous spirituality, primitive religion, emotionalism, or actual black churches under the rubric of ‘the Negro Church,’ groaned under the burden of a multiplicity of interpreters’ demands ranging from uplift of the race to bringing an ambiguous quality of ‘spiritual softness’ to a materialistic and racist white culture” (4-5). ↩