Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Content of Our Character

2009 State NAACP Banquet Speech
Little Rock La Quinta Hotel
Little Rock, Arkansas
September 12, 2009
© Wendell Griffen, 2009


Thank you for inviting me to participate with you in this banquet. I am glad to be here for several reasons.

First of all, I respect the great work that the NAACP has done and continues to do to advance civil rights in this society. Pollsters and politicians often behave as if the cause of civil rights—meaning liberty and equality—is no longer worthy of our attention. The NAACP does not suffer from that delusion. This organization continues to function as a sentry and guardian about the precious rights and freedoms that every person in our society is entitled to enjoy. The NAACP has not gone to sleep. You have argued, raised the alarm, and condemned the policies and politics of those who seek to turn the clock back on liberty and justice. I am here tonight because I respect the work you have done and the work you are doing to protect the freedoms that are the bedrock of our society, and to resist those who would deny those freedoms to others without just cause.

Secondly, I am here out of a deep sense of gratitude to the Arkansas NAACP. My wife, Dr. Patricia Griffen, and I recall that we were with you in 2005 during the annual banquet that occurred on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. My remarks during that banquet speech—or I should say a summary of those remarks in which I criticized the shameful and fumbling way the last Bush administration responded to Hurricane Katrina, among other things—appeared the following day in an issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper. Despite the plain wording of the First Amendment, a 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a 2003 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court, a misguided state agency spent the next two years prosecuting me because of those remarks. The NAACP and other persons and groups that love liberty and respect freedom of conscience and speech encouraged me and my family over the next two years as I fought the charges and eventually forced the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission to dismiss them. I will forever cherish the fellowship and encouragement you gave me during that ordeal.

Let me speak now with you briefly from the subject, "The Content of Our Character." You may recall that during his historic "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 to the multitude assembled for the March on Washington before the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. openly dreamed of a day when his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Years later, Shelby Steele appropriated—some might argue that Steele misappropriated—those words for the title of a book in which he questioned and criticized affirmative action remedies. And, public speakers whose views run the political and social spectrum have used King's words to support their remarks.

Tonight I invite you to consider the possibility that King's words might still be relevant concerning to the plight and potential future of American society, especially when one considers what is happening now.

• What does it say about the character of a society that prefers a vice-presidential candidate who could not name a single decision of the U.S. Supreme Court with which she disagreed when asked during an interview (former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin)? What can we deduce about the character of Americans in Arizona, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, based on their 2008 preference for Ms. Palin as Vice President? Ms. Palin is writing her memoirs. It is reasonably certain that she will pursue a national political role. What does it say about the morality and character of people who embrace her notion and history of leadership?
• What does it say about the character of a society that professes on one hand to invite the tired, poor, huddled masses who yearn to breathe free to its shores, judging from the message on the Statute of Liberty, yet would openly endorse denying healthcare at public expense for undocumented immigrants who may be sick or dying? Where is the "Good Samaritan" ethic found in that? What is decent, moral, generous, compassionate, or even Biblically sound about it?
• What does it say about the character of a society when a police officer sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States is defended by other public officials after he arrests a black man standing in his own yard because the black man accused the officer of behaving in a racist manner? What does it say about the character of that officer, whose official report of the incident falsely claimed that he was responding to a report of two black men attempting to force open the door of a house when the actual report was of two men whose racial identities was not disclosed? What does it say about the police department that makes such an officer a leader on diversity and cultural competency issues?
• What does it say about the character of a society that will support and re-elect a president whose administration failed to detect and prevent two dozen terrorists from taking over four passenger jets and using them as tactical weapons that killed over 3000 people, who used that failure as an excuse to start a war in Iraq, and whose administration supported torturing people during the course of that war?
• What does it say about the character of a society that will name federal buildings and an airport in the nation's capital after a man (Ronald Reagan) whose subordinates plotted an illegal war from White House basement offices?
• What does it say about the character of a society that prefers the imperial presidency of George W. Bush over the efforts of Barack H. Obama to bring people together across racial, ideological, religious, and regional lines?
• And what does it say about the character of a society when politicians and pundits who quietly watched a white president start a war that should never have begun, take the national economy to the point of ruin, and actually praise people who engaged in vicious and violent conduct, now openly denounce the motives and efforts of a black president trying to end that war, save the economy, and hold people who may have committed crimes during it accountable for their deeds?

The content of our character is on display when Russ Limbaugh can openly hope that a new black president (President Barack Obama) fails. It is on display when people in Arizona will carry loaded semi-automatic weapons to public events where the black president is speaking. It is on display when a white pastor and his congregants will pray to God for the death of the black president, and pray for his wife to be widowed and his children to be orphaned.

I am blessed by the friendship of Gardner Taylor, who holds the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is one of the most revered preachers of the Christian gospel in our era. Dr. Taylor is now retired and living in North Carolina. As Dr. Taylor and I were chatting this afternoon, he said something that struck me as both provocative and profound.

Taylor observed that it would be an ironic turn of history if this nation loses its place because of color. Obama has all the qualities that this nation has always claimed to recognize as required for greatness in its national leader, but one. He is blessed with a brilliant mind. He is photogenic, energetic, and thoughtful. He is an inclusive fellow whose personal history demonstrates a commitment to building friendships and helping others. His family history is a fitting example of all the hopefulness and determination that the nation has traditionally celebrated. Barack Obama, according to Gardner Taylor, has all the qualities that the nation and the rest of the world have always celebrated and respected for leadership of our society, except one. He is not white.

I trust that I am not the only person to notice that the people complaining at town hall and other public gatherings about wanting what they call "my country" back were not complaining about losing the country when a white president took it to war. They did not want their country back from a white president whose policies almost took the nation into depression. There was no outcry to retake the country from a white president whose policies allowed combat veterans who awaited medical treatment in Washington, D.C. to live in rat and mold-infested quarters.

These people did not demand their country back from a white president whose vice president had people exposing the identity of a covert intelligence official. They did not want their country back after the first 100, 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000, or 5000 service personnel were killed in Iraq, or after tens of thousands more were scarred and maimed, or after we spent close to a trillion dollars in that war. Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina never complained about the lies told by Scooter Libby, Alberto Gonzales, or other officials who worked for a white president. Arkansans did not demand their country back from that white president.

It is profoundly noteworthy that Americans will accuse President Obama of lying about healthcare. The people complaining about a public healthcare funding option promoted by President Obama seem to forget that Medicare, Medicaid, and the entire military healthcare system are supported by public money. Every public school, public library, public street, highway, and airport is supported by public money. It says something profound and provocative about the character of a people when they will vilify a black president for proposing a public healthcare option after driving along public roadways to town halls held in public buildings.

Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who accused President Obama of lying, enjoys healthcare for himself, four of his sons, and their families through free military medical coverage known as TRICARE. Congressman Wilson voted for the resolution to authorize the war in Iraq, yet voted 11 times against health care for veterans over the past eight years. He voted to cut veteran's benefits—but not his own—so that tax cuts could go to wealthy people. He even voted to cut funding to the Veterans Administration and repeatedly refused to support measures to extend TRICARE coverage to all reservists and National Guard members, despite the fact that many reservists and National Guard members have served multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost access to their civilian work benefits when they did so. That line of conduct provides a clear picture about character.

And it says something about the character of religious life in this society when preachers, priests, and other religious leaders will not address the profound and provocative proof that our character suffers from a cancer that glorifies white leadership however inept, incompetent, or corrupt it may be, but demonizes and demagogues black leadership no matter how well informed, patient, or effective it may be. I do not merely say this concerning white religious leaders. It is also true of black religious leaders. I have listened in vain to hear T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Frederick Price, or many of the revivalists who criss-cross the nation speak on these things. Judging from their failure to do so, it appears that the spirit that inspired and impelled Amos, Micah, Daniel, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth does not move them.

The question for our society is whether we can and will arrest the creeping cancer in our national character? This is a moral question of the first order. I do not have the answer to it. I am a Christian preacher and social activist living in the power and strength of the gospel of resurrection. I live in hope, even in the face of darkness. Yet, I am also a student of history, both secular and sacred. That history teaches a clear lesson: any society that does not live up to its own creed must ultimately die from the cancer of its character failures. This society came to the brink of such death once, and only a Civil War spared it. When I think of the human suffering that occurred before that war, during that war, and after it, I shudder at the implications of our current predicament.

Then, I turn to the source of my strength and the bedrock of my hope. I draw strength from the faith of our forebears and their sacrifices. I recall that there have been other depressing times in our history. And I pray the words of the anthem that holds so much meaning for our people: God of our weary years, God of our silent tears; Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way. Thou who hast by Thy might, led us into the light; keep us forever on the path, we pray. Lest our feet, stray from the places we met Thee. Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee. Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.