Benjamin Elijah Mays was the youngest child born to former slaves and tenant farmers on August 1, 1894 in Epworth, South Carolina. A precocious child, Mays graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Bates College in 1920 and an expert debater, he married Ellen Harvin that same year. She died in 1923 from complications in surgery. Mays taught mathematics at Morehouse College in the early 1920s, where he also coached intercollegiate debate. He received his Masters in 1925 and his Doctorate in 1935, both from the University of Chicago. In 1921 he became an ordained minister and pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta and remained there until 1924.
Two years later, Mays married his second wife Sadie Gray. After teaching English at South Carolina State College, Mays was commissioned for a study of Negro churches in America, which he entitled The Negro’s Church (1933). He held many positions including president of the Tampa Urban League (1926–1928), the national student secretary for Young Men’s Christian Associations (1928–1930), and dean of Howard University’s school of religion (1934–1940). Later he became the president of Morehouse College (1940–1967) and a visiting professor at Michigan State University (1968–1969). It was at Morehouse that the young Martin Luther King, Jr., came under Mays’s considerable influence. Mays was president of the United Negro College Fund from 1958 to 1961, chair of the Atlanta Board of Education from 1970 to 1081, and a trustee of the Danforth Foundation and National Fund for Medical Education.
His national and international interest in religion was manifest when he became a delegate and committee member of the World Council of Churches (1948– 1953) and led the Baptist World Alliance Assembly (1950). Mays worked with the advisory council for the U.S. Committee for the United Nations (1959), the Peace Corps (1961), and was a member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO (1962). His contributions to education (through his eight publications and two weekly columns in the Pittsburgh Courier and the Journal of Negro Education, fundraising tactics, positions held, and vision) backed by strong religious influence earned him 23 awards and 46 honorary degrees. His influence is seen in the speeches and actions of key members of the civil rights movement such as King and Maynard Jackson, the first African American mayor of Atlanta. Mays died in 1984. His papers are housed at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; the University of South Carolina in Columbia; and Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.