A sign for the times — past, present, future
Tuesday, June 24, 2014 12:23 AM
It’s a simple sign, the standard kind seen by many who travel South Carolina’s highways and roadways. Green, bordered in white with white letters, the sign reads “Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Highway.” It reflects the 7-mile portion of Highway 178 dedicated to one of Greenwood County’s native sons.
Around Greenwood County, the name is finally more well known thanks to the efforts that resulted in the creation of the museum that bears his name. The highway dedication will perhaps raise the awareness of who Mays is and what significant contributions he made to society. As people travel and see the sign, we can only hope they will make a point of looking up information. Maybe a passenger will reach for his cellphone, launch Google and type in the words “Benjamin E. Mays.” And yes, maybe even more than a handful of area residents will do the same, if they, too, do not know about Mays’ life.
They will no doubt be surprised to learn a man born into a tenant farming family in Greenwood County’s Epworth community accomplished far more than many would have ever expected. In truth, he accomplished far more than many would have ever wanted, for Mays was born at a time when black men, women and children were second-class citizens. Or worse. Mays witnessed his father being threatened by a white mob during Greenwood County’s infamous Phoenix Riot.
Mays could have stayed in Greenwood County. His father wanted him to, as he needed his son’s help on the farm. However, Mays had a dream for himself that would take him well away from the fields and the farm life he had known as a boy. While he put farming behind him, Mays did not shelve the memory of the treatment of his father. He sought to better himself through education and he sought to better the world in much the same way, by sharing the lesson that everyone on this great earth is a human being and deserves to be treated as such -- fairly, equally, justly.
The passerby whose interest in Mays is piqued by the road sign bearing his name might well be surprised to learn just how much Mays persevered in acquiring an education, how he rose to become an adviser to presidents and world leaders and how he influenced Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, serving as King’s mentor until his death. Mays even delivered King’s eulogy. In addition to his faith, education was at the center of Mays’ life. Faith and education worked hand in hand, they were his core.
From what can be described as humble -- tragic, even -- beginnings in Epworth in 1894 rose a man of incredible strength, stature and resolve. He was a minister, a scholar, a social activist, an educator whose life affected and influenced many, many hundreds of other lives. In fact, even though he died in 1984, Mays continues to affect and influence lives by his example as shared in the annals of history, as well as biographies written about him.
A simple sign in Greenwood County honors a not-so-simple astounding man.