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  • Benjamin Elijah Mays was born in South Carolina in 1894 to former slaves.

  • The youngest of eight children, he grew up in a segregated, Jim Crow society (Mays first earned the right to vote in 1945 when he was 51 years old).

  • He graduated from Bates in 1920, after which he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. 

  • In 1922, Mays became a Baptist minister and from 1934 to 1940 was dean of Howard University’s School of Religion.

  • He was an advisor to U.S. presidents, served as the first African American president of the Atlanta Board of Education, and was the president of Morehouse College for 27 years.

Mays poses with his 1919 debate teammates. Mays’s drive to succeed academically came from wanting to prove “that superiority or inferiority in academic achievement had nothing to do with color of skin,” he wrote in Born to Rebel.

 

Front row, from left, Arthur F. Lucas ’20, Robert B. Watts ’22, Edward H. Brewster ’19; back row, Charles M. Starbird ’21, Benjamin E. Mays ’20, Charles P. Mayoh ’19. Photograph courtesy of Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library.

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Benjamin Mays (right), with Martin Luther King Jr., was known as “the schoolmaster of the movement” for teaching and inspiring a generation of civil rights leaders, including King, who called Mays “my spiritual mentor and my intellectual father.”

In June 1963, Mays and then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson confer while en route to the state funeral of Pope John XIII. (Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Presidential Library)

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