Benjamin Elijah Mays:
Schoolmaster of the Movement
By Randal Maurice Jelks
Recipient of a Lillian Smith Book Award, presented during the Decatur Book Festival on September 1, 2013
Reviewed by Charles S. Johnson
It was the end of a long hot day in the Nation’s capital on August 28, 1963. Tens of thousands had gathered from far and wide to urge the passage of a civil rights act. Just before the climactic rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” the assembled multitude paused for a benediction led by Benjamin Elijah Mays, President of Morehouse College.
Less than five years later, on April 9, 1968, at the end of a hot day in Atlanta, the tens of thousands who had gathered to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. paused for a eulogy given by that same Dr. Mays.
Of all the men and women who could have been chosen, how is it that the planners of both of these momentous events turned to the same man to set the proper tone and to find the right words for the occasion?
Randal Maurice Jelks hints at an answer to this question with the subtitle of his Lillian Smith Award-winning biography of Dr. Mays: “Schoolmaster of the Movement,” a phrase which he attributes to Leronne Bennett. But the hint found in this subtitle only begins to tell the story. From this book itself we learn that Dr. Mays’ relationship to the civil rights movement went far beyond his role as President of Dr. King’s Alma Mater. Long before he assumed the leadership of Morehouse College, Dr. Mays had already emerged as a prominent civic and religious leader, public intellectual, and exponent of a progressive social gospel.
In the 1920s, having co-authored the first sociological study of the black church in the United States, having served as Executive Secretary of the Tampa Urban League, and having served as National Student Secretary of the YMCA, Mays caught the eye of Mordecai Johnson who, like Mays, had studied at the University of Chicago and taught at Morehouse College. In 1926, Johnson was selected as the first black President of Howard University, and in 1935 Johnson chose Mays to implement his vision of building an accredited School of Religion at Howard that would produce a professional cadre of black clergymen that were fully equipped to lead the black community in confronting the current challenges and the challenges to come.
Johnson’s banquet address at the School of Religion’s 1935 opening convocation focused on the work of Mahatma Gandhi, which he described as the first time in history that “political power, economic exploitation, and military domination have been challenged by the power of the spirit” and that “’soul force or non-violent coercion’ has been projected into the political area as a technique of the under-privileged for achieving social ends.”
In 1936, Dean Mays traveled India for an international gathering of the YMCA. He and his friend Channing Tobias skipped out on tour of the Taj Mahal to secure an interview with Gandhi. The interview, which lasted for ninety minutes, must have had a profound effect on all of the participants. In describing the meeting – Mays’ three questions and Gandhi’s prophetic answers - Professor Jelks was able to draw on a variety of sources, including the first-hand accounts of Mays and Gandhi themselves. Following his meeting with Gandhi, Mays visited a school for untouchables, where he was introduced as an American untouchable who had achieved distinction. Upon returning home to the United States, he wrote an article about his trip for the Journal of Negro Education entitled “The Color Line Around the World,” taking note of racial divides around the globe, from India, to Europe, to Palestine, to South Africa and beyond.
For Jelks, the selection of Mays in 1940 as President of Morehouse College was part of a broader story of thought leadership: from his 1938 publication of The Negro’s God as Reflected in his Literature to his role in the 1943 formation of the United Negro College Fund; from his 1947 lawsuit to dismantle discrimination on the Southern Railway to the 1958 establishment of the Interdenominational Theological Center; from his mentorship of the leaders of the 1960 Atlanta Student Movement to his frequent articles in the Norfolk Journal and Guide and the Baltimore Afro-American, and to My View, his weekly opinion column for the Pittsburgh Courier.
In Jelks’ telling, the relationship between Mays and King was more than that of mentor and protégé. Rather, King was a product and an exemplar of Mays’ long campaign to build a professional and committed clergy – a clergy that would play a key role in building movements for social change. Mays wrote the key endorsement letter in support of King’s application to attend Crozier Seminary, was present for King’s trial sermon, ordained King, explained the Montgomery Bus Boycott to black America in his weekly newspaper columns, and awarded King with his first honorary degree. Mays was, in Jelks’ words, Kings consigliore – the person to whom King turned time and again “for advice as the politics of the movement became tempestuous and surged onto the streets of America.”
Biographies fall broadly into several categories. One category includes those works that resemble a chronology of the events in the subject’s life and times. We can turn to a biography of this type to learn every detail of every significant event of the subject’s lifetime. This is not the type of biography which Jelks set out to write. Instead, he has produced an intellectual biography – an extended essay about the significance of Mays’ time on this earth. It tells us nothing about how Mays handled the financial challenges associated with keeping the doors open for twenty-seven years at one of the nation’s flagship HBCU’s. It barely mentions Mays' work as President of the Atlanta Board of Education. These are not the central focus of Jelks’ inquiry. Instead, Jelks’ work provides an intimate glimpse at the forces that prepared Mays for the type of leadership that he provided; a thoughtful examination of how the Twentieth Century theory of the “talented tenth” worked in actual practice; and a revealing portrait of the purposeful resolve that has consistently animated many of those at the helm of major black institutions.
The role of the college president as “public intellectual” – one who advances the public discourse on issues that shape the direction of a society – is firmly established in this country. Derek Bok, Kingman Brewster and Leon Botstein are among the more frequently-cited examples. Randal Maurice Jelks has shown us that this role is not unique to the majority community, and that few college presidents of any ethnicity can match the enduring and far-reaching influence of this president of a small college in Georgia.
Join us for the 2016 Lillian Smith Book Awards Ceremony
During the Decatur Book Festival
September 4, 2016
September 4, 2016