Benjamin Mays: Schoolmaster of the 1960s Movement

February 22, 2011

Die young, die middle age, die old, but remember that the most useful life and most abundant life is the one in which one dreams that which will never completely come true, and chooses ideals that forever beckon buy forever elude. To seek a goal that is worthy, so all-embracing, so all-consuming, and so challenging that one can never completely attain it, is the life magnificent; it is the only life worth living.

-Benjamin E. Mays

Before there was the March on Washington which moved the conscience of America, before there was the Selma to Montgomery marches which produced the Voting Rights Act, before the sit-in demonstrations which led to the desegregation of lunch counters and other public places , before Kwame Toure could advocate  black power,  before Martin Luther King could deliver the “Dream Speech”, before Marian Wright Edelman would establish the Children Defense Fund, Benjamin Mays, preacher-educator, assumed the awesome responsibility of preparing leaders of the civil rights and 1960s movement.

Mays anticipated the civil rights movement and understood above all else that the mental revolution had to precede the social revolution. He saw education as the mechanism to help overturn the state of inferiority and fear that the majority of blacks, including student held. Although he taught no classes, his philosophy permeated the method of instruction at Morehouse.  Martin Luther King Jr., said of his experience at Morehouse: “There was a freer atmosphere at Morehouse and it was there that I had my first frank discussion of race. The [professors] encouraged us in a positive quest for solutions to radial ills and for the first time in my life, I realized that nobody was afraid.”

Consistent with King’s experience and observation, Mays saw the black school as well as the black church as the two centers of resistance. Thus, he infused and integrated the spiritual and ethical teaching of Christianity into the Morehouse educational philosophy, addressing the fundamental issue of the black condition-oppression and manhood. Mays did not he said to “make lawyers or doctors or teachers but men.”

Against the traditional view of college and education, Mays introduced and advocated a conception of education which mirrored WEB Dubois’s view of education.

The problem of education… among the Negro must first of all deal wit the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter of educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers, but not necessity men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of schools.

Benjamin Mays understood Dubois’s educational philosophy, seeing education as instrument of liberation if it was grounded in producing a new black man (and woman) who would use his (her) education to better society and in the process improve the condition of black people. To be sure, Mays wanted to invent new souls. He wanted to root out the weakness and inferiority that heritage of three hundred years of mental and social oppression imposed on blacks and their way of seeing themselves and the world. He used his weekly Tuesday morning chapel lecture to encourage and teach a new way of thinking and doing.

May’s educational philosophy had a threefold purpose: 1) to train the mind to think clearly, logically and constructively, 2) to train the heart to understand and empathize with the aspirations, conditions, suffering and injustice of humankind, beginning with black people, and ) to strengthen the will to act in the interest of the common good. In the context of this framework, Mays exhorted the student at Morehouse to “Do whatever you do so well that no man living and no man yet unborn could do it better.” And, for him the “greatest crime was to give up”; and the “greatest sin was to aim low”

Marian Wright Edelman writes, Morehouse chapel, like Spelman’s was rich not only in music but in eloquence and in wisdom. Its president, Dr. Benjamin Mays, Martin Luther King, Jr, mentor, and other inspirational speakers shared with us what they believed, had experience and thought we needed to know to make it in the world and to make the world a better place by not becoming the… They taught us to be neither victims or victimizers They preached that service to community was a higher value than service to self, that conscience to precedent over career, that respect for life—our own and others- was inviolate.”

Thus, Mays demand that strength and a sense of mission from Morehouse students. “No person” he said, “deserves to be congratulated unless he has done the best he could with the mental equipment he has under he existing circumstances.” He sought to create a new student, a new man who saw himself capable of meeting the demands and conditions of black life. He often told his student body, “If Morehouse is not good enough for anybody, it not good enough for Negroes.
A witness for freedom and a creator of the future, Mays created a climate and context at Morehouse and beyond that bore fruit. A partial listing of the men and women, who were, mentored, influenced or by Mays reads like a who’s who of the civil and women’s rights movements: Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond (led sit-in protest in Atlanta and first , Maynard Jackson, Mayor of Atlanta), Michael Lomax (first black elected Chairman of Fulton County Commission), Leroy Johnson (first member of Georgia Senate since Reconstruction), Marian Wright Edelman ( Children Defense Fund), Lerone Bennett (social historian and editorial staff of Ebony for over 50 years), Horace Ward (Federal Judge), Howard Thurman (influential American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader) Charlayne Hunter-Gault (American journalist and foreign correspondent, first black graduate of University of Georgia), (founded the Morehouse School of Medicine and Secretary of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services), and Samuel D Cook (President, Dillard university).

We salute Benjamin Mays, educator extraordinaire and schoolmaster of the civil rights movement.

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