South Carolina has a sterling record of Human Rights activity. Penn Center where Martin Luther King and his lieutenants met and planned, The Progressive Club on Johns Island where Ben Mack, Septima Clark, Esau Jenkins, Bill Saunders and others met and taught come to mind. Today we celebrate the fine biography of one of South Carolina’s sons, Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement by Dr. Randal Maurice Jelks. Randal M. Jelks, Associate Professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Kansas, has explored an aspect of African American history in African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids.
In his biography of Benjamin Elijah Mays, he treats the making of history at its core—the band of courageous, unrelenting heroes who made it happen through strength of character, influence and insight into the significance of their and others’ actions. Mays held to his beliefs as he waded through the morass of the hate and social discord of a segregated South and figured out the best way forward to a better time. Incorporating the roles of church, religion and secular education, Mays undertook the massive task of changing the South and the Country. Dr. Jelks places him where he belongs as a pillar of strength, commitment and resolute action so that he may be properly understood and appreciated. The celebration of such a paragon is a work well within the mission of the Lillian Smith Book Awards. In the course of accepting his 2013 award, Dr. Jelks remarked as follows:
I would like to thank the Lillian Smith award committee to for bestowing this prestigious award to Benjamin E. Mays Schoolmaster to the Movement a Biography. I would be remiss if I did not thank the University of North Carolina Press and my editor David Perry, who recruited this book, for believing in the project and promoting it. I am deeply gratified to be receiving this award in this city where Mays’ bones rest on the campus of Morehouse College. Mays believed that faith and purposefulness and academic achievement and the practice of democracy in all endeavors were essential to living a wise and prosperous life. For twenty-seven years he eloquently expounded these ideas to young men who attended Morehouse College.
The list of students who sat at Mays’ feet reads like a Who’s Who of American history. I continue to marvel at his determination to escape the confines of his meager existence in Epworth, South Carolina. As the child of ex slaves and tenant farmers to rise as an esteemed churchman worldwide and educator internationally. My fellow historian and Mays biographer Jack Roper entitled his book The Magnificent Mays. And indeed I believe that Benjamin Mays was all that and more.
I wish to thank my family who endured research trips, evenings of writing and rewriting and constantly discussing a man my children never met but whom they now know as a member of the family.
Finally, I want to thank someone who is now long gone, a mentor by the name of Arthur Hughes. In 1969, I came to Atlanta as part of a trip of the YMCA, something that Mays had participated in a great deal. Mr. Hughes worked for the Dryades Street YMCA in New Orleans and organized two busloads of boys to come to Atlanta to the initial grave site of Martin Luther King, Jr. Hughes never knew that he sparked my imagination to write and explore the multiple stories of the South, civil rights, and American history. So I want to thank Mr. Hughes who is now long gone and thank you for this award.