Reverend Benjamin Mays was a Christian pastor and civil rights leader who advocated nonviolence and civil resistance. His books and sermons inspired many influential civil rights activists, including Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who Reverend Mays called his “spiritual son.”
Reverend Mays’s contributions to the civil rights movement are so significant that he has been called the “movement’s intellectual conscience” or “Dean/ Schoolmaster of the Movement.” He spoke out against segregation even before the rise of the civil rights movement.
As President of Morehouse College for almost 30 years, Reverend Mays mentored and taught many students, including Reverend King. Reverend Mays’s sermons at Morehouse College captured the imagination of King, inspiring him to frequently discuss ideas with Reverend Mays. Some historians have said that if it weren’t for Reverend Mays, there wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King, Jr. Reverend Mays significantly shaped the message of civil rights that King carried out. King, who was only in his mid-20s when he became a nationally-famous civil rights leader, relied on Reverend Mays for intellectual and spiritual support.
Reverend Mays was a trusted adviser to several U.S. presidents, including President John F. Kennedy. Hundreds of buildings, schools, and streets across the U.S. are named after Reverend Mays.
CENTERED ON CHRIST
As a son of former slaves, Reverend Mays was inspired by Christian abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. Even as a young child, Mays was greatly influenced by the Bible, which led him to become an ordained minister and a teacher of the Bible to generations of young adults. Jesus’s teachings about love instead of hate motivated Reverend Mays’s nonviolent strategies for civil rights. Mays once wrote, “Man cannot leave God alone, and God cannot leave man alone; so someday, man will yet learn that the ways of the Lord are just and righteous altogether and that in obedience to God’s command, man will make the earth a place of love, brotherhood, justice, and peace.”
In preaching at King’s funeral, Reverend Mays talked about a divine calling to “give dignity to the common man.” He said, “No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else's time. Jesus had to respond to the call of God in the first century A.D., and not in the 20th century. He had but one life to live. He couldn't wait.”