A native of Greenwood, he was the eighth child of former slaves. He graduated from Bates College and the University of Chicago, where he received an M.A. and Ph.D. He was Dean, School of Religion at Howard University from 1934-40 and president of Morehead College from 1940-1967. In 1968 he was elected president of the Atlanta Board of Education. He received forty-seven honorary degrees nationwide and was recognized as a great force for civil rights. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said of him, "He is my spiritual mentor and intellectual father."