Benjamin Mays, Christian minister, scholar, advocate for justice, and an educator, was born in Ninety-Six, South Carolina on August 1, 1894, the youngest of eight children. His parents, Louvenia Carter and Hezekiah Mays, were tenant farmers and former slaves. Mays attended Virginia Union University before transferring to Bates College in Maine, where he earned a B.A. In 1920, he entered the University of Chicago earning an M.A. (1925) and a Ph.D. (1935) in the School of Religion. His education was interrupted by leaves of absence as a pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta, and stints as a teacher at Morehouse College and South Carolina State College (SCSC) as well as by his work with the National Urban League and the YMCA. While teaching at SCSC, he met Sadie Gray, whom he married in 1926. Throughout his life he spoke out against racial inequality and for education.
From 1934 to 1940, Mays served as the dean of the Howard University School of Religion. During his tenure he established the School as one the premier institutions in the nation. He traveled abroad extensively including a 1936 voyage to India, where he met with Mahatma Gandhi.
In 1940, Mays left Howard to become the president of Morehouse College. At Morehouse, Mays was an unparalleled fundraiser who also greatly improved the academic reputation of the school. Mays also influenced generations of African American men who attended Morehouse, imparting a value for education, a belief in the dignity of all human beings, and a desire to combat racial inequality. He served as a mentor for a cadre of civil rights activists which included Martin Luther King, Jr. and Julian Bond.
By the late 1960s Mays became a vocal critic of radical organizations such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They, in turn, denounced Mays’s moderate approach to attaining racial equality.
In addition to Mays’s ministry and guidance at Howard University and Morehouse College, he was one of the foremost scholars of the Black Church. In 1933 he published one of the first sociological studies of African American religion, The Negro’s Church. He published a series of books on African Americans and religion including: The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (1938); Fifty Years of Progress in the Negro Church (1950); The Christian in Race Relations (1952); The Church and Racial Tensions (1954); Disturbed About Man (1969) and an autobiography entitled, Born to Rebel (1971). Mays was also an active member of the National Baptist Convention, the National Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches. He was a member of both Alpha Phi Alpha and Sigma Pi Phi fraternities.
By 1967, Mays had retired from Morehouse and was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education. He served as president in 1970, offering guidance during the tense period of desegregation of the city’s public schools. In recognition of his life’s work promoting racial justice and African American education, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded him the Spingarn Medal. Benjamin Mays died in Atlanta, Georgia on March 28, 1984. He was 89 at the time of his death.