Dorrien: Lesser-known racial justice activists should be recognized


Gary Dorrien gives the Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy Tuesday. His lecture considered the life of Benjamin E. Mays, a minister and early critic of segregation. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

Benjamin Elijah Mays’ earliest memory was his father pleading for his life before a lynch mob.

His formative experience with race relations would affect the path of the rest of his life.

Gary Dorrien returned to the lecture platform at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy to continue his study of lesser-known figures in the fight for racial justice. Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, professor of religion at Columbia University and a renowned theologian, historian, lecturer and author.

Monday’s lecture subject was Black Social Gospel activist Reverdy Ransom. Thursday’s subject was Mays, former president of Morehouse College and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s spiritual mentors.

Dorrien’s lecture, “Defying White Supremacy: Benjamin Elijah Mays, The Negro’s God, and the Black Social Gospel,” traced Mays’ academic achievement and national influence.

Mays was born in 1894 in North Carolina to a family of cotton farmers. Though Mays could not attend school year-round due to his farming duties, his father had learned to read illegally as a slave and passed his knowledge on to his children.

His father disapproved, but eventually, Mays rejected the family farm work and committed to attending school year-round.

“The experience of being taught by African-American graduates … was life-changing for Mays,” Dorrien said. “It gave him models of educational achievement and advancement.”

Growing up in the rural south, Mays and other African-Americans lived in constant fear of lynching and avoided white people at all costs. When he had the opportunity to attend Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, Mays was amazed to discover white classmates who supported him and stood up for him against local bigots.

In 1921, Mays set out for the University of Chicago Divinity School, considered the most prestigious Baptist school in the country. There, he was dismayed to rediscover racist southern whites. Some professors were reluctant to acknowledge their black students outside of the classroom. Jim Crow laws pervaded, especially in the wake of the 1919 race riots.

“Mays aspired to an academic career, but for the next 14 years, he kept getting sidetracked by what he later called ‘distracting temptations,’” Dorrien said.

Among these temptations was Mays’ teaching position at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Mays also took a pastor position at a local church, where he was plunged back into racist Southern society. In the midst of his three years there, his wife died.

Mays returned to Chicago, although the racial tensions in the city had not improved. He worked toward his Ph.D., a dissertation on pagan influences in Christianity.

“It made sense to him that all doctrines have a story, that religious thinking is rightly concerned with understanding the story behind the canonical narratives of Scripture, and that religious meanings are always going to be layered with relative, culturally conditioned historical forms,” Dorrien said.

He took a job at South Carolina State College and remarried. In 1926, he took a position as executive secretary with the Tampa Urban League.

Dorrien described Mays’ role as the “semi-official liaison between black and white communities of Tampa.”

But Mays never forgot the paradox of his work, simultaneously hating segregation and working to reform it.

He returned to Atlanta to be the national student secretary for the Young Men’s Christian Association/Young Women’s Christian Association with some trepidation. The YMCA/YWCA advocated rigid segregation laws, but it also had an impressive history of supporting black Christian leaders.

In 1930, Mays discovered his calling as a public theologian. In collaboration with the Rockefeller Institute of Social and Religious Research, he embarked upon a thorough survey of black churches in the United States. The Negro’s Church was published in 1933. It portrayed a grim national landscape but ended on an optimistic note: The church was culturally indispensible, owned and operated by blacks and a source of validation and recognition. The black church was truly democratic; it was open to all races, including whites.

“For his entire life, Mays approached his intellectual work with the same moral and intellectual conviction that he resisted race prejudice,” Dorrien said.

The Negro’s Church filled a sociological void. It launched the study of the sociology of black religion and furthered Mays’ academic career.

In 1932, Mays returned to Chicago and wrote his dissertation, “The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature.” Mays established two dichotomies: contemporary literature versus mass literature and compensatory religion versus constructive religion. His thesis was that all ideas of God are the constructs of particular social circumstances. Mays used the example of the African-American conception of God changing over time. Mays’ own experience pervaded his dissertation.

He traveled to India to meet Gandhi. The two discussed the philosophy of nonviolence and agreed that oppressed people around the world should network with each other.

Mays worried that African-American intellectuals were giving up on God. This was a new phenomenon in black culture — no matter how hard the situation, blacks relied on their strong sense of spirituality, Dorrien said.

“This phenomenon was a distinctive form of disillusionment,” Dorrien said, partly the result of mistreatment of blacks at the hands of the United States after World War I. This disillusionment set Mays’ professional agenda.

Mays was the dean of the School of Religion at Howard University for six years. During this time, he achieved renown as an ecumenical leader.

In 1940, he accepted the presidency of Morehouse College, where he served for 27 years, greatly improving the quality of education. Four years later, he was elected vice president of the Federal Council of Churches.

One of the students at Morehouse who listened to Mays’ sermons on morality and character was Martin Luther King Jr. King called Mays his “spiritual mentor … one of the great spiritual influences of my life.” After King was assassinated in 1968, Mays gave the eulogy at his funeral.

“Mays taught King not to shy away from saying that racism was the original sin of America and that it remained America’s greatest evil,” Dorrien said. “Persistently, Mays contended that race should not matter and that complete integration is the only morally worthy goal for a Christian to pursue.”

Mays took special pride in the American ecumenical movement, but he felt that Christianity had been destroyed by the burden of racism. He liked that Christian activism fueled much of the civil rights activism. Nevertheless, for the rest of his life, he lamented that it was the courts who effected permanent change, not the church.

He warned young African-Americans to study seriously and constantly improve upon their behavior; he believed they were subject to constant scrutiny by whites. He had a specific vision for the future of the American church, one where whites could attend traditionally black churches and blacks could attend traditionally white churches without suspicion or persecution.

The reason such historical figures as Ransom and Mays were ignored or overlooked, Dorrien said, is because American Christianity suffered from the same racism as American society at large.

Dorrien defined white supremacy as “a structure of power based on privilege that presumes to define what is normal.”

Under this definition, white supremacy or privilege is still alive today.

“To become more inclusive, we have to privilege the issues of people of color,” he said.

Dorrien concluded with methods to increase healthy dialogue among races and religions.

“We need new forms of community that arise out of and transcend the structures that we have inherited,” he said.