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Character not circumstances makes the man

23rd June 2021

Booker T Washington

Booker T Washington was an African American rights campaigner. He was born in 1856 and was one of the last black American leaders born into slavery.

In a speech to the Institute of Arts and Science in Brooklyn, New York, he argued that the iniquities and injustices inflicted on black people in the South adversely affected people of all races throughout the US and that all Americans should unite to oppose them. He went on to explain that crime damages the criminal as much as the victim: ‘physical death comes to one Negro lynched in a county but the death of the morals – death of the soul – comes to the thousands responsible for the lynching.’

Of black people in general, he said, ‘we are patient, humble… we can afford to work and wait. There is plenty in this country for us to do…if others would be little, we can be great. If others would be mean we can be good. If others could push us down, we can help push them up.’ He then spoke the inspiring words that are our thought for the week.

The message was that oppression need not dampen the human spirit; that the more the have-nots are deprived, the better they can choose to be, and the more generously they can then behave when their ultimate and inevitable liberation is achieved. Such a view was also taken by Martin Luther King when in his fight for Civil Rights, he chose the path of non-violence over violence. This enabled the movement to take the moral high ground and to demonstrate that character shaped by the agapeic love of the Christian faith really can ‘move mountains’. King as a Christian believed that all are ultimately made in the image of God and that the liberation of all people was tied up to the liberation of the African American.

However, to rise above the circumstances of one’s birth and environment is not always easy and indeed they do contribute to a person’s character. Martin Luther King knew that years of oppression could lead to a sense of internalised unworthiness and this could effect a person’s ability to stand up for justice and show resilience and indeed self-control in the face of conflict. He also recognised that in order for oppressed and oppressor (also damaged) to be liberated, only agapeic love could make this possible.

While much has changed we can still see racial oppression in the US and all over the world and it is sobering to think what Booker T Washington and indeed Martin Luther King would make of our current situation. George Floyd’s death last year inspired and brought to greater prominence the Black Lives Matter Movement and has also precipitated a movement to revise the history we tell ourselves. This means seeking out voices unheard or silenced in the telling of our national story. It is both challenging and illuminating and will hopefully bring greater depth and understanding in which the diversity of people’s that make Britain, will feel more fully included.

Christine Crossley

Character Not Circumstances