By Jason Kelly
Photo by Larry Burrows/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Even as a child, civil rights leader Benjamin Elijah Mays sensed that education would be his salvation. Some of his earliest prayers were for the schooling that would allow him to escape the social and economic oppression of his life in rural South Carolina.

That faith in education put him at odds with his father, Hezekiah Mays, a tenant farmer who narrowly survived a run-in with a mob of white men during the Phoenix election riot of 1898, when Benjamin was four. The elder Mays cared only about his son’s ability to work. But Benjamin Mays’ mother, Louvenia, supported his educational goals. “My mother never went to school a day in her life, but she prayed that God would help me in my ambition,” Mays, AM’25, PhD’35, recalled later.

Louvenia took her son’s place in the cotton fields, freeing Mays to leave his hometown of Epworth in 1911 for the equivalent of high school at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. He paid his train fare with a ten-dollar bill that Hezekiah threw at him in anger as he left.

Mays validated his mother’s intuition. As an eminent scholar trained at the Divinity School, a Baptist minister, a dean at Howard University, and president of Morehouse College from 1940 to 1967, Mays helped to bend the arc of American history away from the segregation and mob injustice that seared his memory. He achieved such stature as a preacher and a teacher that he became Martin Luther King Jr.’s intellectual and spiritual conscience.

Intellectual formation

Mays enrolled at the Divinity School in 1920 after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Bates College in Maine. Chicago was famous for liberal theology, which appealed to Mays in spite of his orthodox religious upbringing. “I went to the University of Chicago because I like their philosophy, that if you can interpret anything in the Bible you need to know the political, social and economic conditions in which it was written,” he said, according to Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement, a new biography by University of Kansas professor Randal Maurice Jelks.

After less than a year at the Divinity School, Mays and his wife, Ellen Harvin, left Chicago so he could teach at Morehouse College. While there, he became an ordained minister at Shiloh Baptist Church. A blissful three-year period ended in tragedy when Mays’ wife and their baby died in childbirth.

The next year, Mays returned to Chicago to complete his master’s degree. He interrupted his doctoral work to teach at South Carolina State, where he met and fell in love with Sadie Gray, PhB’24, AM’31, his second wife.

Off and on, Mays spent 14 years at UChicago, where he studied with Shirley Jackson Case and Shailer Matthews, two of the most noted theologians of his time. He was also influenced by the work of Carter G. Woodson, PhD’1908, another of the forty-five African-Americans to receive a PhD from the University of Chicago before 1943—the most of any American university in that era.

For much of that time, he worked on an innovative dissertation that would ultimately become his second book, The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature. Mays’ research brought together both theological texts as well as contemporary literature in a way that was unusual for the time. “He was doing interdisciplinary studies long before we were using that term,” Jelks notes.

Mentor to the Civil Rights movement

Mays considered himself a spiritual and intellectual leader, a voice for his people, but always of them. He wrote columns for black newspapers—the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier. “He thinks that ordinary black folk can know what he’s talking about,” Jelks said in a lecture at the Divinity School in November 2011. “That he can translate to them this great historical moment.”

He had firsthand experience to relate. In 1936, the year after he received his doctorate in Chicago, Mays traveled to India and interviewed Gandhi. His principles of nonviolence, echoing the gospel of love that Mays considered Christianity’s only constant, provided a rhetorical bridge from the pulpit to the public square. “Long before Martin Luther King is thinking about it—he ain’t even born,” Jelks said, Mays began to shape the ideas that would define the civil rights movement in the United States.

As president of Morehouse College, Mays became forever intertwined with King, who was a student there in the 1940s. King, only in his mid-20s when he became the nation’s most famous civil rights leader, relied heavily on Mays’s leadership example. “He also needed Mays for spiritual support as he faced the burden of being perceived as the personification of black America’s hopes and dreams,” Jelks writes. “It was Mays who held the job as King’s consigliere over the next fourteen years as the death threats against him grew more ominous and the public battles more dangerous.”

Those battles also grew more fruitful in the cause of freedom. Where they were won, victories could be traced to the social theology Mays had advocated for decades. But casualties continued to mount, so the war raged on against the forces of discrimination and, increasingly, within the civil rights movement itself. “Some activists viewed nonviolent strategies as being unrealistic in light of the outright terror that had been organized against them,” Jelks writes.

Mays suffered the toll of that violence; on April 4, 1968, it killed King, his “spiritual son.” But when called upon to deliver the eulogy for the man he had hoped would give his own, Mays held firm to his belief in the futility of retribution.

Inside Ebenezer Baptist Church he urged an audience of mostly white dignitaries—the black members were left to stand outside in sweltering Atlanta heat—not to “dishonor [King’s] name by trying to solve our problems through rioting in the streets.” If they could turn their sorrow into hope for the future and use their outrage to invigorate a peaceful climb to the mountaintop, “Martin Luther King Jr. will have died a redemptive death from which all mankind will benefit.”

Story adapted from “Spiritual Leader” (University of Chicago Magazine, January/February 2013). Susie Allen contributed to this story.