Luther Spoehr: Review of Randal Maurice Jelks's “Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography” (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).


Luther Spoehr ( teaches "Campus on Fire: American Colleges and Universities in the 1960s," "American Higher Education in Historical Context," and other courses at Brown University.

In the portrait on his biography’s cover, seated at his desk, elegantly attired in brown suit and bowtie, Benjamin Mays gazes steadily at the reader:  his eyes are ever-so-slightly narrowed; his eyebrows, raised a bit; there is, perhaps, the trace of a smile on his lips.  His expression is difficult to read.  But he comes across instantly as smart, tough, solid—in a word, formidable. 

As Randal Maurice Jelks, a historian at the University of Kansas, shows, Mays was every bit of that.  He had to be, to get as far and do as much as he did.  Born in 1894 in tiny Upton, South Carolina, the youngest of eight children born to a tenant farmer and his wife, he seized upon education at a very tender age as the way to bring meaning to his life.  Half a century later, he was president of Morehouse College in Atlanta.  Alumnus Russell Adams  recalled the impact he made:  students “saw what a black man could be when they saw Mays, whose high fluting style contrasted with his forthrightness about his family background:  he could talk about picking cotton…. he could talk about painting houses…; he would say things such as ‘neither my mother nor my father could read; but I am here.’…One time, he introduced one of his semi-literate brothers to us in Sale Hall Auditorium, saying, ‘My brother gave everything he could spare to help me stay in school.’  I remember going back to my room…and crying without restraint at the sheer nobility of the gesture.”

Mays’s brother may have helped him, and his mother’s prayers may have inspired him, but Mays’s father, his own life circumscribed by the violence and poverty of the segregated, turn-of-the-century South, and even his church’s minister tried to discourage his ambitions.  Nevertheless, he moved indefatigably upward (and northward) from school to school, graduating in 1920 from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and moving on to the University of Chicago’s divinity school.  For a time, to support himself and his wife, he worked as a Pullman porter, but he was on his way to becoming a scholar, a pastor, and an activist.  He served as pastor for the Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta.  He worked for the Urban League and the YMCA.  He co-authored a study of “The Negro’s Church” and wrote his dissertation, later published, on “The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature.” 

Jelks carefully traces Mays’s intellectual development and shows how he helped to shape black modernist theology.  Encouraged by his mentors at the University of Chicago, Mays argued that while African Americans’ Christianity had helped them to survive slavery, blacks now needed to move on to a more assertive understanding of religion, one that would insist that American society live up to its professed Christian ideals.  Central to achieving that transformation would be a new generation of religious leaders, a generation that would require more preparation that African American ministers had usually received before. In 1927, President Mordecai Johnson of Howard University had pointed out that “there are 47,000 Negro churches in the United States, and there are in the whole country today less than sixty college graduates getting ready to fill these pulpits.”  To begin to help fill the rest, in 1935 Johnson brought Mays to Howard as dean of the School of Religion.  In 1940, Mays left Howard to take on an even bigger job as president of Morehouse College, a private institution for men in Atlanta.

It was at Morehouse that Mays made his great reputation.  He served as president for 27 years and became a nationally recognized spokesman for civil rights.  His newspaper columns and other writings, such as a 1946 essay called “Seeking to Be Christian in Race Relations,” set the standard for thinkers seeking to justify combining religion and liberal politics.  Many of the students he mentored, such as Julian Bond and Maynard Jackson, became leaders in their own right.  Most famously, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr., who entered Morehouse at 15, referred to him as his “spiritual and intellectual father.”  King was, says Jelks, “the son he never had.”  King’s rhetoric, mingling Biblical truths and American ideals, sprang directly from Mays’s.  (King sometimes quoted Mays so extensively that Mays’s wife, Sadie, thought he should provide attribution.  Mays himself, however, apparently didn’t mind.)

Jelks’s book is best when summarizing and analyzing Mays’s ideas and placing them in context.  From the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch to the ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr and even Billy Graham, Jelks shows how Mays distinguished himself in the debate over the proper role of religion in public life.  In fact, Jelks spends so much time on Mays’s ideas that it might have been more accurate to call the book “An Intellectual Biography,” because the private Mays is not very visible here.  Jelks had access to Mays’s files, but says that “the only drawback to the Mays papers is that, although they are organized, they have never been fully processed and catalogued as an archival collection.”  Perhaps that is why we never glimpse the wellsprings of relentless energy that drove this extraordinary man.   Then again, Mays does not seem to have been a very self-revealing type, so perhaps even more organized files would not have made a difference.

Jelks also devotes very little attention to Mays as institution-builder.  We are told that Morehouse was in some difficulty when Mays arrived in 1940, and that “from 1940 to 1945 Morehouse College enrollment averaged around 355, with an all-time low enrollment of 272 during the 1943-44 academic year.”  But then Morehouse’s institutional growth simply disappears from the narrative.  Exactly how it thrived and then was affected by recruitment of black students by traditionally white institutions, starting in the 1960s—and what Mays thought about all that—we aren’t told.   

Jelks rightly notes that “nothing prepared Mays” for the upheavals of the mid-1960s, particularly the tempestuous arrival of the Black Power movement, which ostentatiously rejected what it saw as the timidity of its elders.  By then in his 70s, Mays stepped down from the Morehouse presidency in 1967, but he continued to be active in his own way, even heading Atlanta’s Board of Education for a time.  He died in 1984, having witnessed, experienced, and influenced almost 90 years of dramatic struggle and change for African Americans.

Because Mays is a fascinating, important figure, one could wish for even more from this book:  depiction and analysis of Mays’s own personal battles and triumphs, and the intrigues of his involvement in both educational and movement politics.  As Jelks observes, “consistently, scholars and critics understate the religious dimension of black life and its influence on the civil rights struggle and black activism.”  Jelks helps to bring the “religious dimension” back to the center of the conversation.  But no man—not even Mays—lives by ideas alone.  Between the covers of this book, readers will find him, like his portrait, formidable.  And, still, not a little inscrutable.

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