First and foremost, Kevin Witherspoon said he is incredibly honored to have been chosen as the inaugural holder of the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Endowed Chair at Lander University.
In the endowed chair position, Witherspoon will teach a new course on Benjamin E. Mays and the evolution of civil rights in the U.S. during the spring semester of each academic year. He will also coordinate special events that celebrate Mays’ contributions to society through joint projects between Lander and the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site in Greenwood. The events and projects will include internship and research opportunities for Lander students, but he hopes to expand outreach efforts to high schools in the future.
The Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Endowed Chair was created in 2020 through a gift to the Lander Foundation from Doug and Sally Kauffmann. Doug served as the former chair of the Lander Foundation board of directors and Sally is a 1975 alumna. The Kauffmanns’ gift created the second-ever endowed chair at Lander University and the first in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.
Witherspoon thinks there was an element of fate in play regarding his selection because Kauffmann attended an event on Lander’s campus about Mays years ago that he helped put on. An article that came out when Kauffmann announced the endowed chair, he said that specific event inspired him to create it in Mays’ honor.
“It struck me, ‘This is really how change happens and this is how we move forward,’” Witherspoon said. “If we never had that initial event then Doug may not have been inspired to create this endowed position.”
Witherspoon’s connection to the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site goes back more than a decade to when he had a Teaching American History grant. He worked with 50 or 60 teachers from Greenwood County’s three school districts. The mission of that grant was to help teachers in the community learn more about the history they were teaching. He said a lot of history teachers got their degrees in education, so they likely only had to take two history classes in college.
At the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site, he and the teachers got introduced to Mays during their visits.
“Over that process, I was incredibly inspired,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about Benjamin Mays before I moved to Greenwood and got my job at Lander back in 2006.”
Witherspoon didn’t understand how the world had this incredibly powerful figure who came from “right here in Greenwood.” He said it seems that everybody who encounters Mays is inspired and encouraged to carry on his legacy and do great things to try to make a change.
“I think that’s part of where I see this endowed chair going,” he noted. “It’s a way of kind of carrying on the legacy that Mays established. His whole mission throughout his life and career was to fight for equality and change amid incredibly difficult conditions. I think anybody kind of hearing about that and learning his story is more inspired to do whatever they can.”
Mays, who was born in 1894, grew up during the Jim Crow Era, which Witherspoon called “one of the bleakest times in racial relations in our history.”
“He was raised in a time where there wasn’t a whole lot of reason for Blacks — particularly in the South — to look around and feel like there was much hope,” he said. “Somehow he fought through that.”
Witherspoon said Mays was one of the people speaking out on racial injustices in the 1930s and 1940s, which not a span most people think of when they talk about the civil rights movement.
With the current racial climate, which in part stems from the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police officers, Witherspoon said it’s a shame that Mays could say some of the very same things that he said in the 1930s and 1940s and they would still apply today.
“There have been significant changes along the way, but there remain so many issues and problems,” he said.
From a historian’s perspective, one of the things that strike him about the current times is how front and center history has become within everything that’s going on. He acknowledged that racial climate is a part of that, but he also referenced what’s happening with the statues and monuments that are being taken down and vandalized around the U.S.
“The best thing that’s coming out of this from where I’m sitting has to be the conversations that people are having,” he said. “I think people are realizing now that these are really important conversations and people need to learn their history to understand that.”
Witherspoon thinks a lot of what Mays fought for, talked about and wrote about are still hot-button conversation topics that people are having today.