How Morehouse president Benjamin Mays convinced MLK to become a Minister

Mildred Europa Taylor January 16, 2023
Benjamin Mays (right) with Martin Luther King Jr. Photo via Bates College

Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., until he was fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee, was a preacher who used the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight for equality and justice. His known roles in social activism led to his death, and decades after, he continues to inspire many.

In fact, all the states in the U.S. annually observe the third Monday of January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. As the nation celebrates King, it will not be out of place to look at one of the men who inspired him to be a leader. Benjamin Elijah Mays, who served as president of Morehouse College from 1940 to 1967, built a relationship with King while the latter was a student at Morehouse.

Besides convincing King to become a minister, Mays created a platform that helped the famed civil rights leader to succeed. He strategized with King and helped him lead civil rights protests and demonstrations, impacting his work significantly. Here’s how.

Born in Epworth, South Carolina, on August 1, 1894, to former slaves Hezekiah and Louvenia Carter, Mays attended Virginia Union University for some time before transferring to Bates College in Maine. He earned his BA there in 1920 and was ordained as a Baptist minister the following year. He went on to serve as dean of the School of Religion at Howard University from 1934 to 1940 after earning his MA and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

While serving as president of Morehouse College, Mays gave weekly addresses at the college’s chapel services. After these sessions, King usually followed Mays to his office, and there they would discuss issues about theology and matters arising in their communities. King would describe Mays as his “spiritual mentor” and would later mention him and professor George Kelsey as those who inspired him to become a Baptist minister. 

“I could see in their lives the ideal of what I wanted a minister to be,” King said in a 1956 interview. Mays also commented that King was “mature beyond his years” while he was schooling at Morehouse.

King was admitted to Morehouse College when he was 15. At Morehouse, the alma mater of his father and maternal grandfather, he studied medicine and law. King had no thoughts of becoming a minister like his dad until Mays convinced him otherwise. So after graduating in 1948, King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree. He also won a prestigious fellowship and became president of his class, according to History.com.

King subsequently entered a graduate program at Boston University, completed his coursework in 1953, and received a doctorate in systematic theology in 1955. Beyond his spiritual accompaniment, Mays supported King in his civil rights work, as mentioned above. In 1956, when the Montgomery, Alabama, police charged some boycott leaders to stop the Montgomery bus boycott, King made it known that he would be part of the protest.

His father was against the decision but Mays strongly backed him. And after the bus boycott, Morehouse College awarded King an honorary Doctorate of Letters in June 1957. Mays went ahead to support King until the latter’s death. At the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Mays delivered the benediction. He also threw his weight behind King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War in 1967. The following year when King was assassinated, Mays eulogized him at Morehouse, dwelling on King’s belief in non-violence and civil disobedience as the means to attack racial prejudice in America. 

“Here was a man who believed with all his might that the pursuit of violence at any time is ethically and morally wrong; that God and the moral weight of the universe are against it; that violence is self-defeating; and that only love and forgiveness can break the vicious circle of revenge,” Mays remarked.

After retiring from Morehouse in 1967, Mays became the first Black president of the Atlanta Board of Education. Before his death in 1984, he served on the board of the National Commission for UNESCO, the board of the Advisory Council of the Peace Corps, and the board of directors of the United Negro College Fund. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also awarded him the Spingarn Medal for promoting African-American education and fighting against racial injustice.  

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