With a permanent marker, I carefully traced out a large No. 88 on the back of a white cotton T-shirt, and then wrote the name “PAGE” above the numbers. It was 1968. I was 6 years old, and my hero was Alan Page, defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings.
Putting on the shirt, I walked down the stairs into the living room where family members had gathered to watch Sunday football. I turned my back to the TV watchers, showing off my new jersey.
“Alan Page?” my uncle laughed. “Don’t you know he’s black?”
I turned around. All the men were laughing. I ran back upstairs, took off the shirt and never wore it again.
Children are not born into racism, they are mentored in it. Racism is as unpleasant to them as the taste of coffee or cigarettes, and yet for many it comes to feel natural, as the way things are supposed to be, as the way things have always been, and always will be.
1968 was the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., four years after passage of the Civil Rights Act.
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing the third Monday in January as a national holiday in honor of King. The first official observance of the holiday took place Jan. 20, 1986.
And now, 43 years after King’s assassination, few would laugh at a white child wearing a Donald Driver or Adrian Peterson jersey. It’s not the most important measure of King’s contribution to society, but it is significant. At least in some contexts, people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
But as our society makes slow, incremental progress toward racial equality, King’s relevance seems diminished, not enhanced. That’s the downside of making him into an icon. The symbol becomes bigger than the person. If only we would take time to read his essays and speeches, we would discover someone whose wisdom and courage are sorely needed today.
King’s commitment to racial justice was grounded in a deep and abiding commitment to goodness. Isn’t that what we want from our leaders?
Reading his words now is like taking a deep breath of clean fresh air.
On political crisis: Today’s problems are so acute because the tragic evasion and defaults of several centuries have accumulated to disaster proportions. The luxury of a leisurely approach to urgent solutions — the ease of gradualism — was forfeited by ignoring the issues for too long.
On materialism: We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.
On corruption: When a culture begins to feel threatened by its own inadequacies, the majority of men tend to prop themselves up by artificial means, rather than dig down deep into their spiritual and cultural wellsprings.
On leadership: 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 your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
On democracy: When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied.
King lived to see President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act into law. But he did not live to see the end of racial prejudice, class inequality, militaristic aggression or political corruption — nor will we in our lifetimes. And for that reason, he still has something important to say to us.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.