Described by Martin Luther King, Jr., as his “spiritual mentor,” Benjamin Mays was a distinguished Atlanta educator who served as president of Morehouse College from 1940 to 1967 (Scott King, 249). While King was a student at Morehouse, the two men developed a relationship that continued until King’s death in 1968.
Mays was born in Epworth, South Carolina, on 1 August 1894 to former slaves Hezekiah and Louvenia Carter. After briefly attending Virginia Union University, Mays transferred to Bates College in Maine, where he earned his BA in 1920. The following year he was ordained as a Baptist minister. After earning his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago, Mays served as dean of the School of Religion at Howard University from 1934 to 1940.
After becoming president of Morehouse College, Mays delivered weekly addresses at the college’s chapel services. King often followed Mays to his office after these sessions to discuss theology and current events. Mays visited King and his parents at their home and became a regular guest at the family’s Sunday night dinners. According to King, his ministerial aspirations were deeply influenced by Mays and Morehouse professor George Kelsey. “I could see in their lives the ideal of what I wanted a minister to be,” King commented in a 1956 interview (Peters, “Our Weapon Is Love”). Mays remarked that the King he met at Morehouse was “mature beyond his years” (Bennett, 27). Mays also had a lasting influence on King’s intellectual life. In “Mastering Our Fears,” a sermon written nine years after King graduated from Morehouse, he drew on a 1946 newspaper column Mays wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, which argued that black and white people must overcome their mutual fears to improve race relations.
When the Montgomery, Alabama, police indicted over 80 boycott leaders to stop the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, King decided that he should remain involved in the protest, even against the wishes of his father. While the senior King assembled acquaintances to dissuade the younger from continuing to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, it was Mays who heard King’s “unspoken plea” and strongly defended his position (King, 145). Morehouse College awarded King an honorary Doctorate of Letters in June 1957, and Mays, reflecting upon King’s role in the bus boycott, glowingly referred to him as a man “more courageous in a righteous struggle than most men can ever be, living a faith that most men preach about and never experience” (Mays, July 1957). Mays continued to support King throughout his life, delivering the benediction at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and endorsing King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War in 1967.
After King’s assassination Mays eulogized him on the Morehouse campus by detailing King’s consistent faith in nonviolence: “Here was a man who believed with all his might that the pursuit of violence at any time is ethically and morally wrong; that God and the moral weight of the universe are against it; that violence is self-defeating; and that only love and forgiveness can break the vicious circle of revenge” (Mays, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, 247).
Mays remained active throughout the 1970s, becoming the first black president of the Atlanta Board of Education as well as serving on the Advisory Council of the Peace Corps, the board of directors of the United Negro College Fund, and the board of the National Commission for UNESCO. By the time of his death in 1984, Mays had received 28 honorary degrees and the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Bennett, What Manner of Man, 1964.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986.
King, “Mastering Our Fears,” 21 July 1957, in Papers 6:319–321.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
(Scott) King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., 1969.
Mays, Born to Rebel, 1971.
Mays, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Speaks, ed. Colston, 2002.
Mays, Honorary Degree Citation to Martin Luther King, Jr., Morehouse College Bulletin (July 1957): 6–7, LOLP-ICIU.
William Peters, “Our Weapon Is Love,” Redbook (August 1956): 42–43; 71–73.