"The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for, not failure, but low aim, is sin." - Benjamin E. Mays
This quote embodies the very epitome of the message that Benjamin Elijah Mays spent his life relaying to everyone around him. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, a scholar, mentor, pastor, consultant, teacher, leader, civil rights activist, and friend to many, has bestowed to the world a life of educating the masses, fighting for equal opportunity, and providing direction for present and future leaders. His voice and actions spoke towards the sanctity of enlightenment, the importance of social justice, and the development of those individuals whom would generally have lower financial, political, and/or social means to reach their potential. His influence has been spread widely over the world and it is important to step back and take a look at this historical figure’s life.
Benjamin E. Mays life began in a humble wooden cabin in Epworth, South Carolina in 1894. Growing up in this town was not easy for the African-American race. Black individuals received much negative attention from racist groups and town members and suffered from extreme poverty. One of Mays’ first memories was that of a White mob forcing his father to take off his hat and bow before them repeatedly in humble servitude (Mays House Museum). Mays’ early days of experiencing and witnessing acts of hatred and inequality marked a time in which he resolutely decided that he wanted more for himself, his family, and for the African-American population at large. Therefore, it is not hard to believe that despite all of the racism and stifling factors associated with poverty in his small town, Mays still managed to cherish and understand the value of education at a young age as he became valedictorian of his high school class (Butts, 2006). After proving his intellectual abilities in secondary school, he matriculated into Bates College where he graduated with honors in 1920 amongst a predominantly White class. His education continued with his acquisition of a Masters and Doctorate degree in Religion from the University of Chicago in 1935.
Dr. Mays felt that his primary calling was to end racism and better the American people as a whole, remarking that “The chief sin of segregation is the distortion of human personality…it damages the soul of both the segregator and the segregated." After gaining the necessary knowledge to enlighten his own mind, he became an instructor for higher mathematics at Morehouse College, while also serving as the Pastor for Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia from 1921-1924. From there, he instructed English at South Carolina State for one year, followed by serving as the Dean of the School of Religion at Howard University from 1934-1940. While a Dean at Howard, he helped to increase the enrollment, improve the faculty, secure endowments, amongst many other projects. It was, however, his time as president at Morehouse University that marked his widest influence on civil action and education from 1940-1967. It was here that he mentored many young African-American men and helped to pave the way for their educational, emotional, spiritual, physical, and holistic development. Among these mentees are Alonzo A. Crim, the first African-American superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, and the widely known civil rights activist, Martin Luther King. It was at Morehouse and through Mays where King gained the necessary tools and guidance to fight for his beliefs and challenge the status quo that defined America during this time (Mays House Museum). After effecting much change in Morehouse and the urban community, Dr. Mays retired in 1967.
Although Dr. Mays retired in 1967, his activities did not wane. In 1969, he was a consultant for the Office of Education’s U.S Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and in 1970, he was a consultant for the Ford Foundation (Mays House Museum). Also, he was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education in 1969, and served three of his nine years on the Board as its president. Member of the Advisory Council of the Peace Corps and the National Commission for the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, & Cultural Organization, and advisor to President Johnson and Carter are also to be included on his list of work activities and achievements.
In addition to acquiring an education during a time where it was made nearly impossible for African-American individuals to achieve, increasing the quality of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, mentoring young African-American men, and guiding future leaders, Dr. Mays managed to publish over 2000 articles and nine books. Due to the sheer caliber of his dedication to the world, he was awarded over 55 honorary degrees from educational institutions and has become one of America’s greatest leaders and legends. Here at the Crim Center, we are honored to have launched a Lecture Series (Benjamin E. Mays Lecture Series) dedicated to Dr. Mays and the continuance of spreading the word on issues that will help to improve the state of the urban community.