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This Day in History: August 1st

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Educator and Civil Rights Activist Benjamin Mays Was Born

The spiritual mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was a pioneer in both education and Christian ministry. The distinguished educator was committed to the students he served (such as Dr. King) and was involved in the struggle for civil rights.

On August 1, 1894, Mays was born to Hezekiah and Louvenia Carter, who were formerly enslaved in South Carolina. Mays’ father believed that he would be most useful helping his family run their farm. However, Mays had a deep desire to get an education. Although his mother did not have a formal education, she supported her son’s aspirations.

Mays initially attended Virginia Union University but transferred to Bates College in Maine and graduated in 1920. After college, Mays became the pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. During this time, Mays also set his sights on the University of Chicago’s divinity program. He obtained a master’s degree in 1925 and a Ph.D. in 1935 from the university despite having his academic experience interrupted due to various teaching positions he pursued.

Morehouse College’s President John Hope recruited Mays to join the faculty as a mathematics teacher and a debate coach. From 1934 to 1940, he served as dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. After his departure from Howard University, Mays returned to the Morehouse campus, but this time as the president of the university. He served in this position for 27 years and led the institution to international prominence. 

While at Morehouse, Mays and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cultivated a relationship in which King viewed Mays as an intellectual father. He served as an unofficial advisor to the young minister. The two were so close that Mays read the eulogy at Dr. King’s funeral in 1968.

Upon retiring from Morehouse, Mays became the first black president of the Atlanta school board. He also served on the advisory council for the Peace Corps and the board of directors for the United Negro College Fund.

Throughout his career, Mays received more than 20 honorary degrees, a Spingarn Medal from the NAACP and authored several books including his autobiography, Born to Rebel.

Dr. Mays died on March 28, 1984, in Atlanta. Their is a memorial in honor of him on the campus of Morehouse College.  

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