Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays: Born to Rebel and Be a Hero

Morehouse College’s A Candle in the Dark Gala is an annual fundraiser for Morehouse College, a private historical black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia, whose mission is to “develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service.” At the Gala, the Bennie Awards, named in honor of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, were presented to distinguished alumni. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays (August 1, 1894-March 28, 1984) served as the sixth president of Morehouse College from 1940-1967.  Dr. Mays was also a Baptist Minister, a civil rights leader, and a trusted advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Jimmy Carter. How did the son of former slaves rise above challenges to become a revered leader and scholar? Dr. Mays' successful life was primarily due to prayer, dedication and elements of the Hero’s Journey.  Let’s discuss…

What is the Hero's Journey?

In summary, the Hero's Journey is a common story structure that takes place in three stages. The Hero's Journey became very popular due to Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This book illustrates the hero archetype that exists in all cultures. Joseph Campbell was influenced by Carl Jung and his teachings on the collective unconscious. George Lucas consulted the book when writing Star Wars. Most stories follow this pattern such as Star Wars, Superman, Spiderman, The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Cinderella, and the list goes on and on.

The hero is the main protagonist in the story who must go on a journey of self-discovery. The hero faces several challenges on the journey including near death experiences, villains and trials. If the hero is successful, he/she returns to their community with newly acquired skills which makes the community a better place. I believe the hero's journey is not just for stories and movies but it is the adventure of life that we all experience based on our environments.

The Hero's Journey can be explained in three acts:

  • The Call to Adventure - The hero is in a world that does not fully meet their needs intellectually, spiritually or socially.  Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz was looking for 'somewhere over the rainbow.' Thomas Anderson in The Matrix was searching for the real world.  Luke Skywalker wanted to leave a family farm and join a space academy.  There are obstacles that heroes must face and overcome before they can leave. However, if successful, they answer the call to adventure and leave the familiar world for the unfamiliar world.  Dr. Mays left his home to pursue higher education.

  • The Initiation- This unfamiliar world has tests and trials to overcome.  In this world, the hero usually meets a mentor who helps him/her maneuver this new world as well as tricksters or villains who impede their progress.  In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker's mentor was Obi-wan Kenobi. The villain was Darth Vader. Dr. Mays had to learn how to live and survive as an Afrian-Amercan man seeking higher education shortly after the emancipation of slaves and at a time when lynching was prevalent.
  • The Return- The hero returns to the familiar world with newly acquired knowledge to share and benefit the community.  After completing his education and working in the north, Dr. Mays returned to the south with a mission to make it a better environment for all. "It may be that this New South was called to lead Americans to an understanding of what true democracy is." (Mays, 70).
Critics of the Hero's Journey believe that it leaves out women.  My thoughts are that Dorothy Gales' journey in the Wizard of Oz follows the Hero's Journey practically verbatim. Another criticism is that not all stories have these elements. I don't think that Joseph Campbell was saying that all stories must follow the same steps. He was basically stating that one way to understand stories and humanity is to look at certain patterns of behavior and situations that the Hero's Journey documents.  

What is the importance of the Hero's Journey?

Knowledge helps us to understand the 'whys and because' of things. Do you want to know how to nurture environments to cultivate more leaders and heroes in our communities? One way is to understand the Hero's Journey and use it as inspiration to become a mentor or supporter. Also, the Hero's Journey may help you to understand events in your own life so that you won't feel alone on your journey. Also, understanding the hero's journey may help you become more empathetic for those who suffer from challenges in their lives through no fault of their own.

Heroes go beyond only serving self-needs to serving the needs of their communities. Technological advances over the years made it possible for computers to go from the size of an entire room to fit in the palm of our hands. In contrast, social problems such as poverty, world hunger and mass incarceration are still issues in our communities. We need more heroes to continue the work.

Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays' Hero's Journey

The Call to Adventure- Both of Dr. Mays' parents were born into slavery. His mother could not read nor write and his father could read print but not script. His father rented 40 acres of land for a two-mule farm or sixty acres for three mules. The rent was two bales of cotton for every twenty acres rented. Susie, Dr. Mays' older sister, taught him how to read and write, so when he attended school at six years old he was ahead of his peers. From his book, Lord, The People Have Driven Me On on page 2, "At the one-room school, students respected me because I knew more than they did, and the teacher thought I was something special. She often "bragged" on me, and I liked it. In fact, I fell in love with my teacher; therefore; I had to continue to do well, because she was my teacher and my first love."

Dr. Mays' familiar world was his community in Ninety-Six, South Carolina. The community was majority poor African-American families but who had a sense of pride about themselves. His family was farmers and Dr. Mays worked as a fieldhand. Susie, Dr. Mays' oldest sister who had a fourth-grade education, taught him how to recite the alphabet, to read and to count. Susie was influential in Dr. Mays' desire to pursue education because she started the process by teaching him at home.

Dr. Mays' smartness made him a celebrity in his community. He was admired and supported. At eight years old, he recited a speech for Children's Day at his church. After his speech, "the people went wild. Old women waved their handkerchiefs; old men stamped their feet, and the audience stood up, including the young, and applauded me lustily and long. How could I let this crowd down?" (Mays, page 2).

Dr. Mays found his passion in education. He wanted a different life other than being a farmer. His father did not support his quest for education because he needed him to stay on the farm and work. Dr. Mays often prayed and asked God to remove the obstacles which kept him from pursuing his quest for an education.

         "It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach."      
                               Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays 

The Initiation

Dr. Mays believed his teachers played a significant role in his success. Even the teachers who never taught him in their classes "put their imprint upon me, as their scholarly presence pervaded the learning environment in which I found myself." (Mays, page 4). Dr. Mays drew from the well of this support as he ventured beyond the confines of his community to live and seek an education at a time when not many African-Americans were doing the same.

Dr. Mays experienced racism as a minority African-American student. He survived due to his strong sense of faith and an ability to remain composed in the face of hostility. A white physician slapped him temporarily blind at the post office as he was waiting to get the family mail. He said, "Get out of the way, you black rascal; you are trying to look too good anyway." (Mays, page 19). Dr. Mays did not strike back because he was afraid to and because of the consequences of defending himself would mean to his life. At Bates College, a white student waiter called him the N-word.

To survive in this unfamiliar world, Dr. Mays focused on his educational goals. Fortunately, he also met angels on his journey who helped him with shelter, his white classmates defended him, he was able to borrow money for school and his family also supported him financially. One element of the Hero's Journey is supernatural assistance that manifests to help the hero survive and overcome obstacles. Per Dr. Mays' book, Lord, the People Have Driven Me On, "As I look back, I am more and more convinced that no man is self-made. Yes, one is due credit for his ability to "fight it out," despite crippling circumstances, for using his mind, but God and his parents gave him his mind." (Mays, page 49). 

The Return

After graduating from northern schools including Bates College in Maine, and the University of Chicago, and even though he had more lucrative offers, Dr. Mays returned to the south to work.  He felt indebted to the community who raised him and felt a calling to make the south a better place to live for everyone. He felt that education was the key to success for the Black community and as the president of Morehouse College he did his part to make the school successful. Along with his wife Sadie Gray Mays, who was also a civil rights activist, Dr. Mays was a pioneer leader who left his mark on the world. 

In Summary, every successful person has a history of sacrifices, trials and triumphs. Dr. Mays named his autobiography Born To Rebel. What was he rebelling against? He was rebelling against the idea that Black people could not learn and were innately inferior to other races. He accomplished his goals by graduating from prestigious institutions of higher learning.  His rebellion continued at Morehouse College where he inherited a school with high debt and turned it around. He also rebelled when critics told him he was too old to run for a seat on the Atlanta School Board and he handedly won. Dr. Mays' life is one of sacrifice and contributions for the greater good. A true public servant.  His life is inspirational.

We all have a unique journey. Dr. Mays became a teacher, college administrator, and public speaker. Our individual contributions are unique to our abilities. Whether you are a mentor, inspirational speaker, educator, writer, law-abiding citizen, or financial giver, no contribution to the world is too great or too small. The world needs whatever you have to offer. 

Dr. Mays dedicated his book, Lord, The People Have Driven Me On "...to the elementary and secondary school students enrolled in the public schools of Atlanta, Georgia, and to those students enrolled in the public schools of the nation, and to Morehouse men everywhere." (Mays)

Be inspired.

Benjamin Elijah Mays High School, Atlanta, Georgia

Sadie Gray Mays
Dr. Mays credits his wife Sadie Gray Mays with being a supportive partner and first lady of Morehouse College during his tenure as president.  Ms. Mays was also a public servant who cared for the needs of the young and aged.  The Sadie G. Mays Health and Rehabiliation Center, founded by Ms. Mays, is named in her honor. 

Mays, Benjamin Elijah, (1971). Born To Rebel: An Autobiography. Charles Scribner's Sons/New York.

Mays, Benjamin Elijah. (1981). Lord, The People Have Driven Me On. Vantage Press/New York

Benjamin Elijah Mays. In Wikipedia. Retrieved https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Mays.

Sadie Gray Mays. In Wikipedia Retrieved https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sadie_Gray_Mays.

Photo of Dr. Mays courtesy of Wikipedia.

Photos of Dr. Mays' books, A Candle in the Dark Gala brochure, and flowers are courtesy of Tuwanda Muhammad.

Photo of Benjamin Elijah Mays high school - courtesy of https://www.architecturalrecord.com/articles/7274-benjamin-e-mays-high-school.

Morehouse College In Wikipedia Retrieved https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morehouse_College.

Campbell, Joseph. (1949) The Hero With A Thousand Faces. 

What is the Hero's Journey? Retrieved from https://www.masterclass.com/articles/writing-101-what-is-the-heros-journey.

Sadie G. Mays Health and Rehabilitation Center Retrieved from https://www.sgmays.org/.

Morehouse College Retrieved from https://morehouse.edu/about/.