Politicians, social activists and news commentators have all weighed in. And with varying viewpoints. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson’s opinions are markedly different from other well-known black men like Dr. Ben Carson and Juan Williams. President Obama has shared some of his personal experiences. And recently Bill O’Reilly has spoken passionately on this issue, calling out those he believes are “race-hustlers.”
The thought occurred to me, what would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say if he were alive today? Of course, we can only speculate. But we do know what he said when he was alive.
Everyone remembers that famous quote from his “I have a dream” speech on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago this month. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
We have come a long way. Fifty years ago bigotry was accepted in many circles. And prejudice was too often demonstrated even by those who called themselves Christians. But even with our progress, we still face the temptation to superficially judge others by race, ethnicity, social status, or economic success. These measurements will always fail. Character is paramount.
Though not as famous as the “content of character” quote, Dr. King made many other important observations that relate to character.
In that same speech Dr. King implored, “ We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”
Regarding the value of a proper education he once said, “Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.”
On another occasion, he correctly observed, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and conveniences, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
In The Testament of Hope, Dr. King wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Speaking to the issue of conscience and ethics, he said, “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
Martin Luther King encouraged others to serve, to work, and to use whatever talent, ability or opportunity one possessed. He said, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
All of these quotes speak to the issue of one’s character. Of moral qualities. Ethical standards. Honor. Integrity. And dignity.
Indeed character is the foundation of all other qualities. Goodness. Virtue. Honesty. Courage. Purity. All of these and more are the fruit produced from the root of character. They are the handiwork of thoughts, influences, and relationships. The Bible says, “As he thinks in his heart so is he” (Prov 23:7).
Perhaps instead of so many people bloviating about race relations in America, everyone should take a break and read some of Dr. King’s writings. And while we are thinking about improving relationships, read the words of Jesus in the Bible. He forever defined how to treat others when he instructed in the Mountain Message: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 7:12)
As Dr. King once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” After all, isn’t that what being a person of character means?
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman