Benjamin Elijah Mays deserves recognition for a long list of accomplishments, not the least of which is his graduation from the University of Chicago Divinity School (MA ’25, PhD ’35). A published author and ordained Baptist minister, Mays was also an incredibly influential civic leader. He served the Florida Urban League, National YMCA, Federal Council of Churches, United Negro College Fund, and Interdenominational Theological Center. In honoring him with a portrait in the Common Room of Swift Hall, however, we recognize his visionary role as an educator in the nascent stages of the Civil Rights movement.
As Dean of the Howard University School of Religion (1934-1940) and President of Morehouse College (1940-1967), Benjamin Mays built institutions in which education amounted to a deeply political act. For Mays, academic achievement among black American students was the key to the battle against Jim Crow. As university president, Mays led Morehouse to become a center for debates about the emerging democratic social movement, and he calibrated the university’s liberal arts education to garner immediate social impact. Mays would find it fitting that his personal legacy remains tied to the work of his students, most notably to Martin Luther King, Jr.
We call attention to Benjamin Elijah Mays during the Divinity School’s 150th Anniversary Celebration in the spirit of this place that trains students to think and speak about religion in an informed, critical, and engaged manner. Benjamin Mays is not merely an exemplar of such, but like his mentors before him—many of whom are pictured in the Common Room—Mays has had a hand in building Swift Hall and molding it into the multifaceted, flourishing place that it is today. The Divinity School exists as an exceptional classroom, a research center, a roundtable, a living museum, and a symbol of democratic social change. The students, faculty, and administrators are all aware that we are just temporary residents here; we are renters, charged with the upkeep of a house of education that extends beyond our own lifetimes, and yet we offer a piece of ourselves to this place through our words, ideas, and publications. Benjamin Mays was no exception, and by commissioning his portrait, we—the students and alumni of Swift Hall—hope to honor his work inspiring non-violent democratic change in our country, rigorous discussions about race in our classrooms, and an indefatigable commitment to justice in our hearts.
On behalf of students and alumni, the Divinity Students’ Association commissioned a portrait of Benjamin Mays for the Divinity School, which was unveiled in April 2016.