UrbanFaith talks to Dr. Randal M. Jelks about his new biography of Benjamin Elijah Mays, who Jelks describes as the "schoolmaster" of the Civil Rights Movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. didn't emerge on the civil rights scene fully formed but drew from a rich spiritual and intellectual heritage that he owed, in part, to his mentor, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays. Mays served as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta for 27 years and delivered the eulogy at King's funeral. In the first full-length biography of Mays, Dr. Randal M. Jelks, associate professor of American and African American studies at the University of Kansas, provides an in-depth look not only at Mays' meteoric rise from humble Southern roots to international acclaim, but he also sheds new light on the fertile soil out of which the Civil Rights Movement grew. UrbanFaith talked to Jelks about the book earlier this week. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Why is Benjamin Mays important?
First, most people think of the Civil Rights Movement as being born in December 1955 with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. In point of fact, it had a long and winding road to becoming a fully understood national movement. You had to have teachers and people who laid out the groundwork for what began in '55, and so I wanted remind readers, particularly those readers who are not familiar with institutions within the Black community, of the great intellectual leaders and teaching that went on to fully fuel a movement.
Mays grounded his civil rights philosophy in the Christian faith, but moved away from his conservative Baptist heritage into Social Gospel theology.
That's correct. The Social Gospel emerged from a German Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch, who was a minister in Hell's Kitchen in New York. When you see people dying everyday from disease and impoverishment (these were European immigrants) at an alarming rate, you say, "How is this individualized gospel helping these people? Is it only teaching them to be saved for the moment and live through this hell on earth?" Mays concluded the same thing from both the impoverishment he faced in rural South and the kind of totalizing exclusion that he saw in Jim Crow America.
You write that Rauschenbusch didn't say much about the sin of racism, but that Mays saw in Rauschenbusch's theology something he could use. Did Mays express any resistance to adopting the Social Gospel in light of Rauschenbusch's relative silence on race?
Mays is like all people in that you find a creative spark. You read somebody and their experience is different than yours, but you find something in that text that triggers your thinking. I think that's how Mays used Rauschenbusch. If he was going to remain Christian, then the gospel has to speak to societal issues; it couldn't just speak to individual issues. If it was just personalized and just a communitarian voluntary organization, it could not be a force for mobilizing social change. That's what Mays would probably say.
You said Mays' emphasis was more on Jesus' humanity than on his divinity. Did Mays believe in the divinity of Christ?
If you use the old theological terms, people with high Christology hold to the divinity of Christ; with low Christology, they emphasize the humanity of Jesus. So Mays would have had a low Christology in the sense that what he sees as important about Jesus are the actions that he took and what he stood for. For Mays, Jesus' death on the cross is because of his actions in facing the state. It is the ethics of Jesus and the teachings of Jesus that are far more long-lasting than whether Jesus arose from the dead. He doesn't have this sort of Anselm theology of the Middle Ages that says Jesus is the sacrifice for all of us.
That sounds consistent with his belief that faith is action. Is there a direct link there?
Yes, I think he would be much more aligned with 1 and 2 John than with the Apostle Paul.
Why did Mays think it was so important to ground his arguments for racial equality in the Christian faith?
Mays could rightly assume that the American narrative began with religious freedom and the theology of those English Protestants of all stripes coming to the British colonies of North America. So, even if we had Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in the United States, that narrative sort of shapes American life and culture. And, in his era, people still went to church in great numbers. So it made sense sociologically for him to speak the language of the people and through these institutions that had moral influence.
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Interview by Christine A. Scheller