Last Monday we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Banks closed. Memorial services and events were held. We have all been asked to take at least a moment to pause and think of someone whose dedication and service meant so much.
I was very busy on Monday with personal business and an important business meeting. But I’m happy to say that I took a moment to reflect on his memorable writings and speeches. His ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech were particularly significant and remain particularly moving.
The former appealed to the Christian feelings of white Southerners, reminding them that all of their churches, throughout the region, were dedicated to teachings that contradicted policies that, at the time, did not allow an African American to go to a food counter and order a simple cup of coffee. The second challenged us all, challenging us to judge each other, not by outward appearances, but by “the content of (our) character.”
As I have already written, this exhortation is particularly striking and quite suitable for a businessman. Dr. King was talking about not judging by skin color, sure. But his words went beyond that. By focusing on character, he was also telling us to set aside other external aspects – wealth, success, beauty, etc. – and focus on other things. Kindness, charity, good will, mercy. All the things that go into what we call “character.”
His words were nothing short of brilliant.
This year, when my thoughts turned to Dr. King’s famous speech, I couldn’t help but contrast them with Joe Biden’s speech in Georgia a few days before. King’s speech was difficult at the time. We cannot deny it. But it was also love. It was a call to what Abraham Lincoln called “our better angels.” It was designed to provoke action, of course, but it was also designed to invoke contemplation.
By contrast, Biden’s speech was hateful, mean-spirited, cynical, dishonest, and mean. He accused those of us who support requiring voter ID cards to vote of being no better than those who support slavery or who unleashed dogs on those who marched with the Dr. King himself. He leveled the same accusation against those who oppose abolishing the Senate filibuster rule, including some within his own party.
Dr. King’s speech got us all thinking, although it may have been uncomfortable for some of us. Biden’s speech generated anger and disgust, when it didn’t generate contempt. It’s hard to imagine a more marked contrast than that between these two addresses.
It has become fashionable in some circles to label anyone who disagrees with him a “racist”. This development is most regrettable. Racism, especially virulent racism, is an ugly thing. Nobody outside of some aberrant weirdos wants to be racist. Nobody wants to be called a racist.
Yet racism exists. It is much less prevalent than it was in years past. But it’s still there. Those who exhibit it must be arrested. They should be avoided. If they tend to violence, they must be prosecuted. Few will disagree with what I have just written.
But if the racist label means anything, it has to be more than “anyone who disagrees with me”. He cannot include senators like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin because they support the continued filibuster. It cannot include anyone who reasonably believes that the same proof of identity needed to buy beer or board a plane should be required to vote.
And that can’t mean that anyone who happens to be white is automatically a racist, or at least the beneficiary of racism. As legendary coach Bear Bryant said of his two black and white players, “they can’t help the color of their skin.” None of us can.
But that only matters if skin color matters. This brings us back to Dr. King. He told us no. Other attributes are what we need to look for. Aptitude. Work ethic. These for sure when we hire a plumber, electrician, house painter or most professionals.
But also, Dr. King reminds us, honesty, integrity, kindness, cheerfulness, respect – all those attributes that make up what we call “character.” This is where the focus should be.
We should not be reminded of this in this year 2022. But we do.