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Born to Rebel

An Autobiography

Benjamin E. Mays With a revised foreword by Orville Vernon Burton

Publication Year: 2002

Born the son of a sharecropper in 1894 near Ninety Six, South Carolina, Benjamin E. Mays went on to serve as president of Morehouse College for twenty-seven years and as the first president of the Atlanta School Board. His earliest memory, of a lynching party storming through his county, taunting but not killing his father, became for Mays an enduring image of black-white relations in the South. Born to Rebel is the moving chronicle of his life, a story that interlaces achievement with the rebuke he continually confronted.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-liv

The afterglow of Reconstruction had almost faded by 1894. In tnat vear Benjamin Elijah Mays was born, about four miles from the crossroads settlement of Rambo (now Epworth) and ten miles from the town of Ninety Six, South Carolina. The rights of African Americans...

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pp. lv-lvi

Few men in my time have observed and experienced more indignities in Negro-white relations than I, who by choice have elected to live in the South, though hating, as early as I can remember, the injustices and brutalities heaped upon Negroes during my...

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pp. lvii-lx

I am indebted to many people who assisted me in various ways during the three years I was collecting data and writing this autobiography. The following persons were helpful in appraising the proposed project: Walter R. Chivers, James E. Conyers...

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INTRODUCTION Reflections on a Rebel's Journey Samuel DuBois Cook The Ford Foundation

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pp. lxi

My chief problem in this introductory essay— which I am terribly honored to write—is to try at once to do justice to the man and his book and to remain a half-step this side of idolatry. Success in the endeavor is not easy. I unabashedly revere Bennie Mays for...

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1. In the Days of My Youth

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pp. 1-21

I remember a crowd of white men who rode up on horseback with rifles on their shoulders. I was with my father when they rode up, and I remember starting to cry. They cursed my father, drew their guns and made him salute, made him take off his hat and bow down to...

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2. "Be Careful and Stay Out of Trouble"

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pp. 22-34

There wasn't much going for the Negro in the world in which I was born. The shades of darkness were falling fast upon and around him. The tides of the post-Reconstruction years were being turned deliberately and viciously against him. The ballot was being...

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3. Frustrations, Doubts, Dreams

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pp. 35-49

As a child my life was one of frustration and doubt. Nor did the situation improve as I grew older. Long before I could visualize them, I knew within my body, my mind, and my spirit that I faced galling restrictions, seemingly insurmountable barriers, dangers and...

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4. Finding Out for Myself

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pp. 50-65

Within a year I was to go to Bates College against the advice of President George Rice Hovey of Virginia Union University, and against the advice of friends. Certainly I was growing in self-confidence and self-reliance, but my problems were far from solved. Financially...

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5. Atlanta, 1921–1924

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pp. 66-88

How fortuitous is the life of man! A simple contact may be decisive in determining one's career. It is highly improbable that I would have spent thirty years at Morehouse (three as teacher and twenty-seven as president) had it not been for that summer day in 1921...

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6. Morehouse and Shiloh

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pp. 89-98

When I first came to Atlanta there were, besides the public elementary schools, six institutions of learning for Negroes: Atlanta University; Clark University (now Clark College); Morris Brown University (now Morris Brown College); Morehouse College; Spelman College;...

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7. Chicago to Orangeburg to Tampa

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pp. 99-105

Dropping out of school to work before completing graduate or professional study is risky business. I went to Morehouse in September, 1921, expecting to stay one year. I stayed three. I was eager to return to the University of Chicago to complete the...

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8. The Tampa Story

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pp. 106-124

Tampa was not the "city of our dreams"; we went there because we had to have jobs. I have never seen blacker clouds than those that hovered overhead as we rode on the train from Jacksonville to Tampa, wondering whether we had made the right decision. It was a dark and dreary day when we arrived, but the picture brightened somewhat...

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9. Two More Detours

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pp. 125-138

I had fully intended to go straight through for a Ph.D. once I entered the University of Chicago in 1921, but one detour after another detained me: Morehouse, South Carolina State, the Tampa Urban League; thereafter, the National YMCA, and then the Institute of Social...

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10. In the Nation's Capital

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pp. 139-148

Having completed all course requirements, I had no reason to remain at the University of Chicago beyond the summer quarter of 1934. I was ready now for work in a church, or in a college or university. I had had some correspondence with church officials about a pastorate in St. Louis. President Thomas E. Jones had offered...

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11. Race and Caste Outside the U.S.A.

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pp. 149-161

All my life the race problem had been as close as the beating of my heart, circumscribing my thoughts, my actions, my feelings. A black man must not only meet the problem publicly, but invariably when Negroes are by themselves the conversation drifts to...

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12. Learning the Problem in Depth

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pp. 162-169

I had been back in Washington only a few days when I was chosen to attend the Church Conference on Church, Community, and State to be held in Oxford, England, in the summer of 1937. I attended the Oxford Conference as a co-opted delegate, representing...

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13. So Much with So Little and So Few

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pp. 170-195

In early 1940, when John Hervey Wheeler, a member of the Board of Trustees of Morehouse College, and now president of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank of Durham, North Carolina, interviewed me in my home in Washington, D.C., about the possibility of my...

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14. Other Involvements

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pp. 196-212

To be president of a college and white is no bed or roses. To be president of a college and black is almost a bed of thorns. The ever-present necessity of raising funds is particularly difficult for the Negro college, since money owned and controlled by whites flows...

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15. Southern Negro Leaders Challenged the White South

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pp. 213-220

For decades much of the white South argued that Southern Negroes were satisfied with their plight. They said this when lynching was widespread, segregation was 'God,' discrimination was rampant, and Negroes in large numbers were migrating North...

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16. Politicians and President Kennedy

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pp. 221-233

When Ellis Arnall defeated Eugene Talmadge in 1942, Negroes in Georgia were disfranchised. Therefore neither Arnall nor Talmadge had any reason to worry about the Negro vote. Nevertheless, the racial problem was injected into the campaign. Although Arnall...

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17. Morehouse School of Religion and the Interdenomination Center

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pp. 234-240

At Howard University, we had succeeded in developing the School of Religion into a first rate seminary which gained membership in the American Association of Theological Schools in December, 1939. Prior to the School of Religion's admission, Gammon...

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18. The Church and Race

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pp. 241-264

I believe that throughout my lifetime, the local white church has been society's most conservative and hypocritical institution in the area of White- Negro relations. Nor has the local black church a record of which to be proud. The states, schools, business enterprises, industries, theaters, recreation centers, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, trains...

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19. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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pp. 265-274

Before the Ford Foundation inaugurated its Early Admission Program, Morehouse had instituted one of its own. The Second World War was playing havoc with the College, for our students were being drafted in large numbers. In this crisis, we decided to take...

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20. I Can Sing Atlanta: The Trail Blazers

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pp. 275-286

I have never been able to sing "Dixie." I cannot sing "Dixie" because to me Dixie means all the segregation, discrimination, exploitation, brutality, and lynchings endured for centuries by black people. It means the riots I have seen, the personal insults I have suffered,

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21. I Can Sing Atlanta: The Young Warriors

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pp. 287-299

When the Morehouse students began to talk about doing something about the intolerable situation in downtown Atlanta, where merchants gladly took black people's money but would not allow them to buy a cup of coffee, I knew that demonstrations were not far off. On February 1, 1960, four students from...

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22. Retrospect and Prospect

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pp. 300-322

For seventy years, I have been keenly aware of the continuing crisis in Negro-white relations. To see a mob of white men bent on lynching Negroes before one is five years old etches an impression on the mind and soul that only death can erase. Since my boyhood days, I have longed for a solution to the Negro-white problem. At one time I was...


A. The World in Which I Was Born and Reared

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pp. 323-348

B. The Church Amidst Ethnic and Racial Tensions

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pp. 349-356

C. Eulogy at the Funeral Services of Martin Luther King, Jr., at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia, April 9, 1968

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pp. 357-360

D. Interracial Hypertension

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pp. 361-362

E. Statement of Conference of White Southerners on Race Relations

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pp. 363-365

F. The Richmond Statement

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pp. 366-367

G. Excerpts from Correspondence Regarding Merger of Seminary Work of Gammon, Morris Brown, and Morehouse

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pp. 368-369

H. Degrees

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pp. 370


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pp. 371-380

E-ISBN-13: 9780820342276
E-ISBN-10: 0820342270
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820325231
Print-ISBN-10: 0820325236

Page Count: 464
Illustrations: 33 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2002

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Civil rights.
  • Morehouse College (Atlanta, Ga.) -- Presidents.
  • Mays, Benjamin E. (Benjamin Elijah), 1894-1984.
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