'Schoolmaster of the Movement'

Professor discusses his biography of Benjamin Mays, the Morehouse president whose influence went well beyond mentoring Martin Luther King Jr.

February 22, 2012

A forthcoming book says Benjamin Elijah Mays's presidency at Morehouse College helped shape the future of the country's only historically black all-male institution and the nation as a whole.

University of Kansas professor Randal Maurice Jelks follows the civil rights leader's life from his childhood in rural South Carolina to his long tenure at Morehouse in Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement, to be released this spring by the University of North Carolina Press.

Jelks looks at Mays's lifelong desire to compete with the best students -- black and white -- and empower a younger generation of black men to do the same. The son of former slaves and a mentor to the civil rights movement's most iconic leader, Mays worked his way off a cotton farm in South Carolina to Bates College in Maine and eventually the University of Chicago, where he earned two graduate degrees.

Mays was an ordained Baptist minister who left the pulpit for the classroom but whose deep faith was central to his time as dean of the Howard University School of Religion and his presidency at Morehouse.

Jelks agreed to answer some questions from Inside Higher Ed about his book.

Q: It’s hard to overstate the importance of Mays’s role as a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. But you point out that Mays’s contributions extend well past his role in shaping King. What do you see as Mays’s legacy both to the country as a whole and to the education system in particular?

A: Mays’s legacy shows what a committed educator can do! When Mays returned to Morehouse in 1940 it was in dire straights financially and on the verge of being taken over. Through a lifelong commitment to the institution (27 years), he helped preserve it as a men’s college (for black men), an institution of higher education that continues to benefit the United States today. If you look at the alums of Morehouse, they are a who’s-who in America. That's a claim that only a few elite institutions of higher education can lay claim to, and all of those institutions are 40 times richer than Morehouse.

Q: Mays was an ordained Baptist minister. Though he left the clergy for academe as a young man, you argue that his religious background helped shape his philosophy as an educator and administrator. Do you think Mays would have been as well-positioned to guide leaders like King without that religious training?

A: We will never know. What we do know is that the black Baptist Church and American Protestant institutions gave Mays a chance to receive an education. He chose to be a clergyman and a theologian. He saw the study of Christianity as being intellectually important to his oppressed black community and an area of study where he could make a contribution. He believed in the goodness of black-led institutions, e.g., black churches, and saw his role as being intellectual force within it. If Mays had not earned a Ph.D. in theology, he would have still turned out a King. A committed educator and a leader can develop all kinds of students. Mays’s students, who admire him even today, are doctors, journalists, lawyers, religious leaders, scientists, businesspeople and teachers.  His genius was to instill a philosophy and confidence in all his students.

Q: Morehouse and Howard are both secular institutions. But you write that "Mays believed that his faculty members were all religious practitioners." Explain the significance of that statement.

A: Well, today these schools are nonsectarian. However, both these colleges have origins in American Protestantism, Morehouse especially. Protestant churches aided both these schools in their development; in that sense they are no different from the University of Chicago or Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia Universities. Morehouse was started by black Baptists in Augusta, Ga., as the Augusta Institute, at the end of the Civil War. Northern white Baptists came alongside these courageous black Baptists to reshape the college throughout the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th century. Henry Morehouse, a Northern Baptist clergyman, who the college is named after, was one of its chief benefactors. Religion was central to Morehouse’s origins and its history today. Chapel services for religious students at Morehouse are vibrant and ecumenical and interfaith. One of the reason that Mays was selected as president of Morehouse was because he still had strong ties in the Protestant establishment. Howard University received consistent aid to get on its feet from the Congregationalists well into the 1920s. It is a misreading of history when we fail to acknowledge the Protestant origins of so much of American higher education. Of course, though both schools are far more nonsectarian than they once were, both still have departments of religion and Howard has a fine Divinity School. As far as the faculty was concerned, it was assumed by many institutions that the faculty were Protestant Christians, either cultural or confessional. This was not particular to Morehouse or Mays at the time; it was true of many institutions of higher educations in the first half of the 20th century.

Q: Mays is perhaps better-known for his role as a mentor than his job as a college president. Discuss Mays’s strengths and weaknesses as an administrator. What could a current college president learn from him?

A: Your question betrays a bias. In the world of black colleges and among black Americans, Mays was known for being a college president and leading clergyman. Others in higher education knew Mays as well. He was in Time, Ebony and academic journals.  The University of Chicago Divinity School gave him its distinguished alumni award in 1949. To put it bluntly, Mays was perhaps one of the best-known black Americans before King. He was an outstanding administrator. To measure this, we need to understand what he faced. Outside of the Rockefeller Foundation and some select donors such as the Danforth family of St. Louis; very few white donors gave money to Morehouse. Jim Crow business practices in the South didn’t allow him to raise any money from the Atlanta business establishment. One interesting exception was Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone With the Wind, a novel and movie Mays despised. Mitchell secretly funded Morehouse graduates to go to medical school. In addition, Mays worked tirelessly making sure his faculty earned Ph.D.s. I don’t think there was an American college president who was as good as Mays in those years. Morehouse survived and grew under his tireless and determined leadership.

Q: Mays experienced overt racism, both as a boy in the South and as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where you write that white students would refuse to eat lunch at the same table as him. What role do you believe racism played in leading Mays to spend his career at historically black institutions?

A: Well, this is America! "Racism is as American as apple pie," to quote Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). Perhaps people don’t realize how shut out of American higher education black Americans were -- professors and students alike. Just recall that W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the our country’s most gifted intellectuals with a Harvard Ph.D. and nearly one from the University of Berlin, was completely shut out of the Ivies. One thing I should add is that the University of Chicago, where Mays attended, created the most black Ph.Ds before World War II. However, these gifted men and women were locked into black institutions in Mays’s generation.

Q: Morehouse remains a well-respected college, though it now must compete for the best black students with institutions that were segregated for much of Mays’s tenure. What role did Mays’s time at Morehouse play in positioning the college for its continued success?

A: First, Mays served as a role model of what black men could become. His parents were born American slaves and were tenant farmers. He wore his Phi Beta Kappa key all the time! Second, he created an environment where the prestigious schools today must compete with Morehouse to get the best black male students. Harvard and Yale wish they could get the males that Morehouse still produces. The brightest of those students go to top-tier schools for graduate education, but those universities are still not rivals with Morehouse in recruiting top black male students. Mays injected his notion of what a Morehouse man should be, and so many young black men still want to be Morehouse men. Maybe one day all the other schools will rival Morehouse for the best black students, but not as of today.

Q: What can administrators at secular colleges learn from Mays and Morehouse about embracing faith while remaining inclusive?

A: Morehouse still has affiliation with National Baptist Convention, the historic black Baptist denomination that helped to found the college. It also has ties with the various black Islamic communities around Atlanta. If black Americans are religious, and so many are, and Morehouse serves black students, then they must have ties into the religious communities in which their students come from. The question of inclusivity is for everyone. Too many college administrators are ignorant of American religious history and the role that it has played in higher education and the role religion plays in their students’ lives. I find it odd how many faculty members who know nothing of American religious history but stereotypes. Religious students, no matter their faith, are diverse as any other students. That’s what Mays knew. He understood that religious ideas were to be respected and explored with the same rigor as all other subjects. So administrators should not fear religious students or religion, for that matter. What higher education is about is learning to listen and learn from one another and that includes students who are religious and atheistic alike.

Q: What can college presidents today learn from Mays?

A: To stand for something more than the conventional corporate and managerial stitch that so dominates higher education today. Rarely have I heard a speech from a university or college president that encourages respectful dissent, democratic civic engagement, and standing in solidarity with the poor and disfranchised. If they want to learn something from Mays, well, that would be it. He was a great college president not because he simply managed well, but because he also inspired students to stand for up for what they believed in and to go out and change their country and the world.

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Mitch Smith

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