Interview: Randal Maurice Jelks on the Legacy of Benjamin Elijah Mays

Today is the publication day for Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography, by Randal Maurice Jelks. The book is available in hardcover and e-book. In this interview, Jelks discusses the ideologies and ambitions of Mays, a leader in the civil rights movement and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.

Q: Benjamin Elijah Mays (1894-1984) is perhaps most well known for being the mentor of Martin Luther King Jr.; he even delivered the eulogy for King on the Morehouse College campus. How would you describe the relationship between King and Mays?

A: The relationship between Mays and King was paternal, like father and son. Mays acted as a second father to King, as a wise counselor and an advocate on his behalf in dealing with older civil rights leaders.

Q: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement started out as a paper you presented at the centennial celebration of Benjamin Elijah Mays at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. What made you decide to turn your paper into a full-fledged book?

A: I decided to turn it into a book because nearly every major work on the civil rights movement included biographies of King, but never explored Mays, who had a profound impact both on Martin Luther King Jr. and in his own right. Second, nearly every civil rights history mentioned Mays, but never fully his role in relationship to the civil rights movement.

Q: This biography was 17 years in the making. Why did this process take such a long time?

A: I wrote another book along the way titled African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids. Interestingly enough, I wrote about Samuel Graves, who came from Grand Rapids to become the second president of Morehouse College. Additionally, I had a big job of going through the Mays papers at Howard University and finding his correspondence in other collections. Lastly, I was rearing children.

Q: In this chronological narrative of Mays’s life and writings, you write up until the publication of his autobiography, Born to Rebel, in 1971. What are the key elements you hope to fulfill that the autobiography may have left out?

A: Mays shaped his autobiography to address the events of the late 1960s, but he failed to narrate the important things about himself. He did not include many of things he had done during those years, or his personal struggles and pains. Born to Rebel was written as a justification as to why the civil rights movement was necessary and as reminder to the generation born in the 1950s of the struggle of their elders.

Q: In Mays’s New York Times obituary, Frank J. Prial said Mays had angered his father by “aiming too high” when he decided to attend college in 1916. What do you think were the driving factors behind Mays’s ambition and his commitment to making a difference in the civil rights movement?

A: Ambition is one of those indeterminate things in any human being’s life. I suggest in the book that Mays combined his ambition with his religious belief, driving him to challenge the system of racial segregation. Prial was correct, Mays did anger his father. Mays’s father, Hezekiah Mays, had known men who aimed high and who were beaten down by the system of Jim Crow, as he himself had been. His anger was partially fear for his son’s safety.

Q: Mays grew up in the Afro-Baptist tradition, which he believed to be a survival mechanism for African Americans. How would you characterize this tradition, and how has it since evolved?

A: I disagree with Mays. Yes, the Afro-Baptist tradition helped people to survive, but it also helped numerous individuals to strive. It was an institution solely operated by black Americans. To be sure, it was flawed, but it would evolve on its own accord. Today Black Baptist Churches are what Mays thought they should become, but black Americans have changed and there is more religious pluralism and atheism in black communities today than in Mays’s time.

Q: You examine the foundations and origins of Mays’s ideas, especially in relation to the civil rights movement and Protestant theology. One particular term that was deeply embedded in him was “Prophetic Christianity.” What is this term, and how does it impact his story?

A: The term is really borrowed from Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. Protestantism in the scope of world religions borrowed from the eighth century B.C.E. Hebrew prophets to challenge the religious doctrinaire in Northwest Europe in the sixteenth century. This iconoclastic tradition in the hands of American slaves and ex-slaves became a powerful weapon in challenging the religious certitudes about race and inequality in the United States.

Q: Mays was extremely loyal to his southern roots. Discuss his dedication to the South, and what impact did that have on the civil rights movement?

A: Mays could have left the South numerous times, but he never did. He knew that the key institutions that black people had were in the South. For example, all the institutions of higher education that served black youth were in the South. He also thought if the South were transformed, the United States would be transformed. He was proud to be a southerner. He did not want to abandon the place where his ancestors had put their blood into the land and developed it and helped to win the Civil War. He wanted to claim the South back from being the “white” South, so he remained loyal to the region of his birth and rearing.

Q: It is nearing 30 years since the passing of Mays. What do you think Mays would have to say about religion and race in America today?

A: He would say that Sunday mornings are still the most segregated hour in America. He would be delighted to see the growth in the number of scholars who are writing about black religion. He would also be delighted to see the number of seminary presidents and deans who are black Americans outside of historical black colleges and universities. He would be dismayed about how the events of 9/11 made some people equate being a Muslim with being a terrorist. I know he would have shaken his head and thought that black Americans never equated all Protestant Christians with the Ku Klux Klan, a religious and terrorist organization.


Randal Maurice Jelks is associate professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Kansas and author of Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography and African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids. Visit his website, read his blog, and follow him on Twitter @drjelks.