Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights activist who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, was a preacher who used nonviolent and civil disobedience tactics to fight for equality and justice. His well-known roles in social activism led to his death, and he continues to inspire many decades later.
In fact, every state in the United States observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday of January each year. As the country honors King, it is fitting to remember one of the men who inspired him to become a leader. While King was a student at Morehouse, Benjamin Elijah Mays, president of Morehouse College from 1940 to 1967, developed a friendship with him.
Mays, in addition to persuading King to become a minister, established a platform that aided the famed civil rights leader’s success. He strategized with King and assisted him in leading civil rights protests and demonstrations, which had a significant impact on his work.
Mays was born on August 1, 1894, in Epworth, South Carolina, to former slaves Hezekiah and Louvenia Carter. She attended Virginia Union University for a time before transferring to Bates College in Maine. In 1920, he received his BA and was ordained as a Baptist minister the following year. After receiving his MA and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, he went on to serve as dean of the School of Religion at Howard University from 1934 to 1940.
Mays delivered weekly addresses at Morehouse College’s chapel services while serving as president. Following these sessions, King would usually accompany Mays to his office, where they would discuss theology and community issues. Mays was King’s “spiritual mentor,” and he and professor George Kelsey were the people 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.
When King was 15, he was admitted to Morehouse College. He studied medicine and law at Morehouse, the alma mater of his father and maternal grandfather. King had no intention of becoming a minister like his father until Mays persuaded him otherwise. So, after graduating from high school in 1948, King went on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree. According to History.com, he also received a prestigious fellowship and was elected president of his class.
Following that, King enrolled in a graduate program at Boston University, completed his coursework in 1953, and was awarded a doctorate in systematic theology in 1955. Mays, in addition to his spiritual support, assisted King in his civil rights work, as previously stated. When Montgomery, Alabama, police charged some boycott leaders with violating the Montgomery bus boycott, King declared that he would participate in the protest.
His father was opposed to the decision, but Mays strongly supported him. Following the bus boycott, Morehouse College bestowed an honorary Doctorate of Letters on King in June 1957. Mays continued to support King until his death. Mays delivered the benediction at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He also supported King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War in 1967. When King was assassinated the following year, Mays eulogized him at Morehouse, emphasizing King’s belief in nonviolence and civil disobedience as means of combating 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.
Mays became the first Black president of the Atlanta Board of Education after retiring from Morehouse in 1967. Prior to his death in 1984, he served on the boards of the National Commission for UNESCO, the Advisory Council of the Peace Corps, and the United Negro College Fund. He was also awarded the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his contributions to African-American education and the fight against racial injustice.