Randal Jelks, Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement (University of North Carolina Press), is just coming out this spring with the University of North Carolina Press. I had the opportunity to read the manuscript -- actually multiple versions of the manuscript! -- and am really happy to see this excellent and long-awaited work come to fruition.
Mays stands as one of the most critical, and unknown, black educational leaders of the twentieth century, and in his biography Jelks gives the man his due. Mays is best known for his long presidency at Morehouse College, where he mentored Martin Luther King as a young college student and steered the institution through the civil rights era. Jelks also details May's younger years in a way that no other author has done.
Two interviews with the author -- at Inside Higher Education, and at the UNC Press Blog -- are a quick way to introduce yourself both to Mays and to the main themes of this excellent book. Here's a little excerpt from the Inside Higher Ed interview.
A forthcoming book says Benjamin Elijah Mays's presidency at Morehouse College helped shape the future of the country's only historically black all-male institution and the nation as a whole.
University of Kansas professor Randal Maurice Jelks follows the civil rights leader's life from his childhood in rural South Carolina to his long tenure at Morehouse in Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement, to be released this spring by the University of North Carolina Press.
Jelks looks at Mays's lifelong desire to compete with the best students -- black and white -- and empower a younger generation of black men to do the same. The son of former slaves and a mentor to the civil rights movement's most iconic leader, Mays worked his way off a cotton farm in South Carolina to Bates College in Maine and eventually the University of Chicago, where he earned two graduate degrees.
Mays was an ordained Baptist minister who left the pulpit for the classroom but whose deep faith was central to his time as dean of the Howard University School of Religion and his presidency at Morehouse.
Jelks agreed to answer some questions from Inside Higher Ed about his book.
Q: It’s hard to overstate the importance of Mays’s role as a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. But you point out that Mays’s contributions extend well past his role in shaping King. What do you see as Mays’s legacy both to the country as a whole and to the education system in particular?
A: Mays’s legacy shows what a committed educator can do! When Mays returned to Morehouse in 1940 it was in dire straits financially and on the verge of being taken over. Through a lifelong commitment to the institution (27 years), he helped preserve it as a men’s college (for black men), an institution of higher education that continues to benefit the United States today. If you look at the alums of Morehouse, they are a who’s-who in America. That's a claim that only a few elite institutions of higher education can lay claim to, and all of those institutions are 40 times richer than Morehouse.
Q: Mays was an ordained Baptist minister. Though he left the clergy for academe as a young man, you argue that his religious background helped shape his philosophy as an educator and administrator. Do you think Mays would have been as well-positioned to guide leaders like King without that religious training?
A: We will never know. What we do know is that the black Baptist Church and American Protestant institutions gave Mays a chance to receive an education. He chose to be a clergyman and a theologian. He saw the study of Christianity as being intellectually important to his oppressed black community and an area of study where he could make a contribution. He believed in the goodness of black-led institutions, e.g., black churches, and saw his role as being intellectual force within it. If Mays had not earned a Ph.D. in theology, he would have still turned out a King. A committed educator and a leader can develop all kinds of students. Mays’s students, who admire him even today, are doctors, journalists, lawyers, religious leaders, scientists, businesspeople and teachers. His genius was to instill a philosophy and confidence in all his students.