Divinity School event on Oct. 10 to explore legacy of Civil Rights leader Benjamin Mays

An upcoming event at the Divinity School will honor the legacy of one of its most influential alumni and the man Martin Luther King, Jr. called his “intellectual father.”

Civil Rights leader Benjamin Elijah Mays, AM’25, PhD’35, is the subject of a newly released biography by University of Kansas professor Randal Jelks. Jelks will give a lecture on Mays’ life and work, titled “The Modern Historicist of the Black Church: Benjamin Elijah Mays and the University of Chicago Divinity School,” at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 10. Jelks also will discuss his research on Mays at the Oct. 10 community luncheon at the Divinity School.

"We are delighted to have Professor Jelks at the Divinity School to share with us and the broader Chicago community his fresh research into the career and impact of esteemed Divinity School alumnus and educational pioneer, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays,” said Margaret M. Mitchell, dean of the Divinity School and the Shailer Matthews Professor of Early Christian Literature.

Mays was born in Epworth, S.C. in 1894, and graduated from Bates College in 1917. He entered the Divinity School in 1921, and balanced his graduate work with teaching duties at Morehouse College and the pastorship of Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta. He was the president of Morehouse College from 1940 to 1967, and was influential in mobilizing the black church in the struggle for civil rights. Mays remained a respected religious leader and educator until his death in 1984.

He is widely remembered for mentoring a young Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a student at Morehouse College when Mays was president. Over the years, Mays and his wife Sadie became “like a second family to King,” Jelks said.

The two remained close throughout King’s life, and it was Mays who delivered King’s eulogy in 1968, saying, “[I]t isn’t how long one lives, but how well. It’s what one accomplishes for mankind that matters.”

Although Mays’ academic work has attracted less attention than his connection to King, it is no less significant, according to Jelks. Mays’ UChicago dissertation, which was the basis for his second book, The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (1938), was unusual not only for its focus on African-Americans, but also for the breadth of its source material. Mays combed popular literary and theological texts to show how the idea of God could be used in the fight against Jim Crow.

“It is a pretty original piece of work,” Jelks said. “He was doing interdisciplinary studies long before we were using that term.”

Jelks’ book, Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), is the first full-length biography of Mays. Jelks holds an M. Div from the McCormick Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Michigan State University. He is the author of African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids and one of the founders of theblackbottom.com, a blog of African American politics, culture and activism. He is the co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal American Studies.

The Divinity School’s Wednesday community luncheons take place at noon in the Swift Hall common room (first floor). Admission is $5 and includes a vegetarian meal (vegan on request). Reserve a place by e-mailing divinitylunch@gmail.com. The lecture will be held in the Swift Hall third-floor lecture room at 4:30 p.m., with a reception to follow. All events are open to the public.