Remembered mostly for his close friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and his presidential tenure at Morehouse College, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays left a lasting impression on academia and the civil rights movement. The youngest of eight children, he was born on Aug. 1, 1894, to former slaves-turned-tenant farmers.
The Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Bates College obtained both his M.A. and his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1925 and 1935, respectively. During that period, he was also ordained a Baptist minister, offered a pastorate at an Atlanta church and taught at South Carolina State College and Morehouse College. In 1934, Howard University appointed Mays Dean of the School of Religion, where he served until 1940.
His rising prominence in academia landed him the prestigious position of president at Morehouse College that same year. His 27-year tenure ushered in a succession of major changes, including the introduction of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, sustained enrollment during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and upgrading the school’s faculty.
As students, a young Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow Morehouse alumni attended May’s popular Tuesday morning Chapels in Sale Hall, where he motivated them to strive for excellence in scholarship and in life. Mays and King developed a close mentorship and friendship that they maintained until King’s assassination. Mays would go on to deliver the benediction at the March on Washington in 1963 and the eulogy at King’s funeral.
After retiring from Morehouse College, he served as president of the Atlanta Board of Education from 1970 to 1981. The esteemed educator and activist received 56 honorary degrees throughout his career and published nearly 2,000 articles and nine books. Dr. Mays died in Atlanta on March 28, 1984.
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