Benjamin E. Mays: The Role of Character in the Prolonged Struggle for African American Civil Rights

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Virginia Tech

This study examined the life of Benjamin Elijah Mays, in terms of discerning his character strengths and the role they played in addressing equality issues during his lifetime and beyond. Character was defined by the analytic framework of Peterson and Seligman's Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. An examination of Mays's written archived works as well as key secondary references served as data sources. Peterson and Seligman's Values In Action-Inventory of Strengths (derived from and based upon their classification scheme) was converted into if/then statements to identify Mays's character strengths and virtues associated with specific historical events. The historical context focused on the social setting/event of Jim Crow and legally sanctioned segregation. Addressed was how Mays's character assisted in bringing about the end of segregation in public venues, ushering in voting rights for all disenfranchised Americans, and his use of the church and academia to recruit champions for equality in worship and life. Mays undertook an 88 year journey toward equality, a journey that spanned second slavery, passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, implementation of and failure to enforce affirmative action plans, and 44 years as a leader in the fight against segregation. Despite the fact that both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously passed resolutions in 1983 and 2001(SRs 188 and 23; HRs 17 and 49, respectively) to award Mays the Presidential Medal of Freedom “in honor of his distinguished career as an educator, civil and human rights leader, and public theologian,” the Medal was denied by the Reagan and G.W. Bush administrations. The equality issues that existed during Mays's life continue to haunt American society, but Mays's importance to the continuing struggle for civil rights and the character strengths that he brought to this struggle are undeniable and provide fertile territory for future research.

character strengths, civil rights, equality, inferior, segregation, virtue, character