The advancements of the civil rights movement relied on the steadfast efforts of people like Charles Mays, who challenged the status quo in Minneapolis and across the country.
Mays earned a reputation as an effective civil rights organizer during the 1960s and 1970s, working as a field director for the national NAACP and as a leader of its Minneapolis branch, among other roles. His work put him on the front lines of civil rights battles over issues like school integration, housing discrimination and voting rights.
He remained active in Twin Cities civic life until his death, serving as president of the local chapter of AARP and recently helping to transform a Minneapolis park named after Martin Luther King Jr. Mays died on June 5 at age 85.
Attorney Dan Shulman, who served as general counsel for the Minneapolis NAACP, remembers Mays as one of the "giants of the branch."
"He was a gentleman's gentleman," Shulman said. "And dedicated to the cause of civil rights. If civil rights were involved, he was there."
Longtime civil rights activist Ron Edwards said one of the key projects Mays worked on locally was the 1971 lawsuit alleging that the Minneapolis school system was segregated by design. Edwards added that national NAACP leaders took note of Mays' work in the Twin Cities.
"He was a young man well respected by the giant and leader of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins," Edwards said, referring to the executive director of the national organization.
Originally from Milwaukee, Mays served in a variety of roles for the national NAACP, including as West Coast field director and youth field director in the Great Plains region. He traveled the country representing the organization in the 1960s, often generating news coverage for his comments about issues like housing and school segregation.
"He did community organizing. He did teach-ins. He did the full gamut," said his niece, Michele Bratcher Goodwin, who highlighted his advocacy to reduce the voting age to 18.
Mays' work also took him to the Deep South, which made some of his family uneasy around the time three civil rights workers were murdered there in 1964.
"My sister Dolores told him to quit the job," said his sister, Gloria Mays-Fulsom. "She said, 'Because it's too dangerous.'"
Mays spent the remainder of his working life as a social worker in Minneapolis Public Schools and private practice.
T. Mychael Rambo, a friend and actor, said that outside of work Mays was an avid art collector, enthusiast and benefactor. The pair often attended plays together, Rambo said, and Mays frequently visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
"Charles is a connector," Rambo said. "He is an individual who just by virtue of how he walks and shows up in the world, he has a knack for being present in community."
In recent years, Mays played a prominent role reshaping Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in south Minneapolis — which he advocated naming after King in 1968. Mays became a prominent opponent of a plan to install a dog park there, because of how dogs were used against civil rights advocates in the south. It was ultimately defeated.
Park Board President Brad Bourn, who originally supported the dog park plan, said Mays patiently educated him about why it was problematic.
"He was ... one of the most persuasive people I've ever met," Bourn said. "And I learned a lot from him."
Mays co-chaired a council formed in the wake of that incident to ensure King's legacy is reflected in the park. Their accomplishments include the construction of a black history-themed playground there.
A memorial service is planned for July 4.