An important figure in the civil rights movement and black history overall has been honored with a museum opening in his hometown.
The Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site in Greenwood, S.C. hosts the museum interpretive center, as well as Mays’ newly-dedicated childhood home and a one-room schoolhouse. The home was moved in 2004 from its original location in a local pasture to the GLEAMNS Human Resources Commission, Inc. grounds.
“It started here in a log cabin and a cotton patch. If it hadn’t been for Benjamin Mays, there probably wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King. Nor an Andrew Young, nor a (former Atlanta mayor) Maynard Jackson,” said Andrew Young, also a former Atlanta mayor.
“In fact, the legacy that came out of this little area is, forgive me, I don’t mean any heresy, but it is like Jesus coming out of the little town of Bethlehem,” Young added.
Mays has been referred to as the father of the civil rights movement, a fact that is sometimes lost in the history books. His 1954 speech to the World Council of Churches shined a needed light on the racism of the Deep South and was said to have started the civil rights movement.
A few years earlier, Mays was Morehouse’s president when a young student named Martin Luther King, Jr. attended the school. Mays became a mentor for King and encouraged him to go into ministry. King would later come to symbolize the non-violent and church-based civil rights movement of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Mays would later deliver the eulogy of his protégé in April 1968 after his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.
Benjamin Mays was born in Greenwood in 1894 to former slaves. He attended the High School Department at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. From there, he attended college in Virginia and transferred to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he graduated.
Mays eventually earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. During that time he taught at Morehouse College in Atlanta and was a Baptist minister. In 1940, he became president of Morehouse College, a position he would hold until 1967. After retiring from the college, he was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education. He would later become its first black president and serve until 1981.
For more information or to make a tour appointment, visit the Mays House Museum website.