Benjamin E. Mays: Intellectual & Spiritual Civil Rights Mentor

Arguably the most influential alumnus in South Carolina State University’s 125-year history, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was a legendary pioneer in both higher education and the Civil Rights Era.

Born in 1894 to former slaves in Epworth, Greenwood County, South Carolina, Mays saw firsthand the terrorism inflicted on African Americans from white supremacists in the Jim Crow South. Coupled with his faith and education, those experiences led him to become the guiding intellectual figure in the fight for equality.

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

Having been homeschooled by his older sister, Mays initially attended a Baptist-sponsored school in Epworth before enrolling in the high school department at SC State, known then as Colored Normal Industrial Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina. At age 22, he received his diploma in 1916 as valedictorian of his class.

He was one of three African American students to graduate from Bates College. Lewiston, Maine, in 1920 and became an ordained Baptist minister in 1921. Shortly after graduating from Bates, he married Ellen Harvin whom he had met at SC State during high school. She died in 1923 following an operation in an Atlanta hospital.

Mays continued his education at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree in 1925. Mays then returned to South Carolina and SC State, where he taught English. He met his second wife, Sadie, while teaching at SC State. In 1928, Mays began a national study of black churches in America. His first book, “The Negro’s Church,” was published in 1933. His other works include “The Negro’s God” (1938) “Disturbed About Man” (1969) and his autobiography, “Born to Rebel” (1971).

Beginning in 1934, Mays served as dean of the Howard University School of Religion and completed his PhD in religion University of Chicago in 1935. In 1940, he became president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he would serve until his retirement in 1967.

In 1944, Mays’ early admission program at Morehouse brought 15-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. to Morehouse, and Mays became the future civil rights icon’s intellectual and spiritual mentor. Mays’ influence on King was most evident in the policy of nonviolent civil disobedience, which Mays had learned in a 1936 visit with Mahatma Gandhi.

SC State is celebrating 125 of years of education, service and excellence by highlighting many of the university’s successful and influential alumni.

The “Ready All to Do & Dare” Campaign is underway with the goal of raising $1.25 million to aid the next generation of Bulldog leaders.

To donate, please visit, and select the125th Anniversary/Annual Fund from the menu.

In 1950, President Truman appointed Mays to the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth. Throughout his 27 years at the helm of Morehouse, Mays became an adviser to several Democratic presidents, including Kennedy, Johnson and Carter. He traveled, spoke and wrote against segregation.

Mays presented the benediction at the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Following King’s assassination in 1968, Mays eulogized his former student with his now famous “No Man is Ahead of His Time” speech.

After his retirement from Morehouse, Mays was elected to the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education in 1969. He was the first African American to be president of the board. During his tenure, he supervised the desegregation of schools and appointed the first African American superintendent of schools.

Mays died in 1984 just shy of his 90th birthday. His legacy has been preserved at the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Site in Greenwood, South Carolina, a destination for individuals and groups interested in learning about the life of one of the nation’s most influential Civil Rights leaders and the African American experience in South Carolina. The site contains Mays’ birth home, which was moved from its original location in Epworth and furnished with circa 1900 furniture.

Sources: Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Site, Discover South Carolina, Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff Library.

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Sam Watson
Director of University Relations | | 803-533-3603 (Desk) | 803-747-1223 (Cell)