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The Magnificent Mays

A Biography of Benjamin Elijah Mays

John Herbert Roper, Sr.

Publication Year: 2012

Civil rights activist, writer, theologian, preacher, and educator, Benjamin Elijah Mays (1894–1984) was one of the most distinguished South Carolinians of the twentieth century. He influenced the lives of generations of students as a dean and professor of religion at Howard University and as longtime president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. In addition to his personal achievements, Mays was also a mentor and teacher to Julian Bond, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; future Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson; writer, preacher, and theologian Howard Washington Thurman; and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In this comprehensive biography of Mays, John Herbert Roper, Sr., chronicles the harsh realities of Mays’s early life and career in the segregated South and crafts an inspirational, compelling portrait of one of the most influential African American intellectuals in modern history.

Born at the turn of the century in rural Edgefield County, South Carolina, Mays was the youngest son of former slaves turned tenant farmers. At just four years of age, he experienced the brutal injustice of the Jim Crow era when he witnessed the bloody 1898 Phoenix Riot, sparked by black citizens’ attempts to exercise their voting rights.

In the early 1930s Mays discovered the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and traveled to India in 1938 to confer with him about his methods of nonviolent protest. An honoree of the South Carolina Hall of Fame and recipient of forty-nine honorary degrees, Mays strived tirelessly against racial prejudices and social injustices throughout his career. In addition to his contributions to education and theology, Mays also worked with the National Urban League to improve housing, employment, and health conditions for African Americans, and he played a major role in the integration of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).

With honest appreciation and fervent admiration for Mays’s many accomplishments and lasting legacy, Roper deftly captures the heart and passion of his subject, his lifelong quest for social equality, and his unwavering faith in the potential for good in the American people.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press


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pp. vii-8

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii-9

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pp. ix-xii

This book is a biography of a good man who made a difference in what is often called the “long civil rights movement.” He never called it by that name himself, but he certainly understood that the movement started for him when night riders attempted to kill him in 1898, and he certainly considered that it was uncompleted when he faced his final days in 1984. ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

As in all projects that take more than ten years, there is no way to acknowledge adequately the many people who have helped me along this path. Some who have helped me, however, must go in this space. ...

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Introduction: Getting Dr. Payne

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pp. 1-4

Benjamin Elijah Mays. His given names were chosen with care, chosen for their magnificence. They are names of biblical characters chosen to lead. ...

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1. Seed of James, Branch of Prophets and Judges, 1894–1898

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pp. 5-14

He was the son of slaves. His mother, Louvenia Carter Mays, was born into slavery in Virginia, and his father, Hezekiah Mays, was born into slavery in South Carolina. His mother, called Vinia, did not really remember slavery, but his father Hezekiah did, as Benjamin Mays reported in Born to Rebel. ...

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2. The Ravening Wolf, 1898

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pp. 15-31

As Bennie Mays read it in the Bible, Joseph did not come to realize at once that his brothers’ ill treatment of him could follow a providential design, that they meant him evil but that the Lord meant him good by their actions. That understanding came for Joseph in his final season, nor would such a season of understanding come easily in Bennie’s life. ...

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3. A Rambo Boy after the Riot, 1898–1911

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pp. 32-41

As 1898 ended and as the new year of 1899 came on, the Charleston Courier proclaimed that the “War” was over and that the killing had stopped, declarations repeated more loudly by the local news papers, especially the Greenwood Index, in which the Mays family read the editorials by publisher S. H. McGhee and the byline stories by Kohn. ...

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4. The Student, 1911–1917

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pp. 42-59

It cost money to go to school. The people of the extended Mays family received a portion of South Carolina’s revenues for public schools, but that portion was only the lesser part. There were twenty dollars for each white student in a public school, but only two dollars for each dark student in a public school. ...

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5. Wisdom in Northern Light, 1918–1919

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pp. 60-73

It was not only that he ran away from the tyranny of the lords of the South. It was not only that Bennie Mays was drawn to the morality, the right conduct, and the good hearts of the men in the North. There was more. Bennie was a stirring man, a man who strove. He was ready to set himself against the best, against brilliant Yankees. ...

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6. For Every Time There Is a Season, 1920–1924

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pp. 74-110

The autumn season of 1920 began a time of troubles for the new couple with bright dreams. Bennie Mays labored in many places but with Boston as his hub. Ellen Mays labored in the valley of the Santee. Though they sowed much, their harvest was spare. Bennie and Ellen Mays loved one another, and they loved their callings, he to preach and she to teach. ...

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7. My Times Are in Thy Hands, 1924–1926

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pp. 111-130

Chicago was much as he had left it. Yet more and more black people had come there from the valleys through its western and southern gates. Still the factories thrummed, and the bosses were paying. And still it was a city in which black people came and settled and labored and sang as strangers in a strange land. ...

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8. New Negroes on Detour, 1926–1934

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pp. 131-157

Mr. and Mrs. Mays spent the years 1926–32 at work in Tampa and Atlanta with some interesting northern trips. The husband and wife defined themselves as New Negroes working according to station and training to improve the lives of young African Americans throughout the lower South. The work kept each close to the academy. ...

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9. The Great Commission and Its Filling, 1934–1936

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pp. 158-175

In this verse the Savior in whom Bennie Mays believed charged his followers with the duty to convert and thus bring nonbelievers to him. The passage is known among preachers and divinity students as “the great commission.” To serve the commission as he understood it, Mays needed to complete his graduate work and begin ministry to students at a black college. ...

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10. In the Nation’s Capital, 1936–1940

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pp. 176-206

Black professionals were proud of their colleges. Even in the nineteenth century, some had attended Brown University, Oberlin College, and Wilberforce University. These alumni spoke with pride and gratitude of the academic “mother of their soul,” the college that had challenged and pushed and yet loved and nurtured them too. ...

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11. In My Father’s House, 1940–1947

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pp. 207-230

Bennie and Sadie Mays had been shocked to find the sad state of affairs at Howard University’s School of Religion in 1934. Part of their dismay was caused by the way in which the unkempt Douglass Building sagged and slumped in the midst of a campus otherwise building happily through campaigns sponsored by Harold Ickes and the first New Deal. ...

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12. “To your tents,” 1948–1967

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pp. 231-255

“To your tents!” is a refrain of the tribe of Benjamin recorded in most translations of 1 Kings and 2 Samuel in the Bible. The speaker was the Benjaminite Sheba, and his words were exciting, affecting—and blasphemous. It was the worst part of having the name “Benjamin” and thus owning Benjaminite history in the Bible. ...

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13. “Myne owne familiar friend,” 1968

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pp. 256-283

“Myne owne familiar friend.” The psalmist in a major mood switches voice with this melancholy note marked by bitterness, recalling a friend—“after my own heart,” with whom he “took sweet counsel together”—who turned against him. The psalmist then returns for solace and life itself to the Hebrew God Yahweh, ...

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14. Leave Me a Double Portion, 1969–1984

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pp. 284-308

The late springtime of 1969 was depressing indeed. Campuses were in tumult, and Nixon’s southern strategy reinforced the power of senators such as Strom Thurmond, Richard Russell, and James Eastland while at the same time elevating to nationally respected status the old-time segregationist radio and television commentator Jesse Helms. ...


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pp. 309-340


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pp. 341-356


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pp. 357-366

E-ISBN-13: 9781611171846
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611170771

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

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