The content of someone's character cannot be immediately known, but something else can be, and Dr. King said it, too
Martin Luther King is one of the greatest orators and most quotable leaders this country has ever seen, and perhaps his most famous line comes from his most famous speech: “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.”
In light of the long narrative of aggressive police shootings, culminating in the shootings of Alton Sterling and Phildando Castile and the subsequent attacks on police in Dallas, I am beginning to think that Martin Luther King did not go far enough, and perhaps his admittedly beautiful line has actually limited the American people in the pursuit of racial harmony.
See, during a contentious encounter with someone personally unknown to us, we will often make assumptions about the content of his or her character. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I assume that person is a jerk. If someone walking behind me steps on my heel and doesn’t apologize, I assume that person is rude. If a cop pulls over a random black man and sees him move his hands in a certain way, he may assume – fairly or not — that the man has a gun that he intends to use. If a black man is stopped by a cop for any reason, he may assume – again, fairly or not – that he’s being unjustly profiled and is possibly at risk.
My point is that we can’t actually ascertain the content of someone’s character unless we get to know that person – and even then, we can be fooled.
So should we really be aiming for a nation in which we are judged by the content of our character?
Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. We are, as John Paul II says, “unique and unrepeatable, someone thought of and chosen from eternity, someone called and identified by name.” If judged based on that criteria, we see that every person has inherent dignity: I am loved by God whether or not I am of good character.
More to read: The Catholic deacon walking in MLK’s footsteps
But if I can choose who deserves my respect based on whether I know the person to be of good or bad character, then ultimately no one is going to earn universal respect. For example, Martin Luther King has lost the respect of some because of his alleged extra-marital affairs Some don’t respect St. John Paul II because of the sexual abuse crisis blowing up during his pontificate. There are even some who don’t respect Mother Teresa because they believe she had ulterior motives when serving the poor in Calcutta.
I could go on.
So maybe we need a new mantra in our quest for racial and societal harmony — one that still comes from King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Let’s start there. You are a human being, and based on that fact alone, you have dignity deserve my respect. If we can let this idea take over our hearts and minds – and especially instill it in the hearts and minds of our children – I believe that we could see a lot of healing take place.