Benjamin E. Mays
Class of 1920 – ‘Schoolmaster of the Movement’
Benjamin Elijah Mays was born in South Carolina in 1894 to former slaves. The youngest of eight children, he grew up in a segregated, Jim Crow society (Mays first earned the right to vote in 1945 when he was 51 years old). He graduated from Bates in 1920, after which he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. In 1922, Mays became a Baptist minister and from 1934 to 1940 was dean of Howard University’s School of Religion. He was an advisor to U.S. presidents, served as the first African American president of the Atlanta Board of Education, and was the president of Morehouse College for 27 years.
Called the “schoolmaster of the movement,” Mays spoke passionately about the importance of education and for the desegregation of schools. He inspired civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Morehouse graduate, who called Mays “my spiritual mentor and my intellectual father.” Mays gave the eulogy at King’s funeral.
Mays served as a Bates Trustee and received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1947. His bequest created the Benjamin E. Mays Scholarship Fund. His several books included his autobiography, Born to Rebel (1971), in which he said, “Bates College did not ’emancipate’ me; it did the far greater service of making it possible for me to emancipate myself, to accept with dignity my own worth as a free man. Small wonder that I love Bates College!”