The Color of Character


I had a dream. I dreamed I stood slightly to the right and behind Dr. Martin Luther King, at the Lincoln Memorial, on that noteworthy August day in 1963 as he delivered his oft-quoted speech. I looked out over the sea of hopeful, well-intentioned, and earnest black faces that filled the Washington Mall.

I was proud to be there. I knew Mom, Dad, and Grandpa Leo could see me on the TV back home in Michigami, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago). Mom and especially Grandpa were the most socially just persons I knew. Grandpa was a warhorse for the civil rights movement. Grandma was watching too, but she was more concerned with who would clean up the mess left on the mall, “when all those colored people left.”

When Dr. King got to the most familiar part of this nugget of American history, that his “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,” I panicked. That was not how we rehearsed it. He left something out. Conscious of the vast, live audience, I subtly cleared my throat, and nudged him a bit, to no effect. He continued on. So I leaned in closer.

“Dr. King.” I whispered with urgency. “You forgot something. You left something out— something important.”

He stopped and slowly turned to look at me with eyes narrowed.

“Dr. King, you forgot to say: and by their conduct, remember? You want them not to be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, and by their conduct. Remember how we said it was good alliteration with another word beginning with a ‘c’?

Remember how I told you that a person’s conduct is the first hint we have of a person’s character. Sometimes that’s all we have a chance to see. Their conduct is a manifestation of their character. You agreed. Remember, Dr. King? That was going to be part of the speech, and that’s going to help out a lot of people—black and white—in the future if you include those words.”

But I lost him. He stared past me, as if through a ghost, turned away, and continued where he left off. He said nothing about conduct.

“Get off the stage, honky.” “Sit down and shut up, boy.” An older, stern-faced, black woman in the audience, looking and sounding like the strict health teacher in my junior high school, opened a small milk carton, and tossed it at me. Just before the contents spilled on my head, I awoke.