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. – Dr. Martin Luther King
More than half a century since Dr. King uttered that famous line, it remains one of the loftiest expressions of a noble ideal. Imagine how different the world would be if we assigned the highest priority to our personal character and then dealt with each other accordingly. I think another word for such a place might be “Heaven.”
Many African Americans, some even under the arduous conditions of servitude, lived their lives precisely that way. They may have never marched in the streets or carried a placard, but by their examples they accomplished much. And when they spoke truths about such matters as character, equality, and conscience, their integrity and achievements allowed them to do so with immense moral authority.
Below are inspiring words from three in particular: Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington—each of whom were models of so many traits that define greatness: honesty, humility, courage, optimism, wisdom, fairness, and more.
The Amazing Contralto
For 40 years, Marian Anderson (1897-1993) thrilled audiences in America and Europe with her prowess as a singer. No performance of hers, however, encapsulates her legacy more distinctly than that on Easter Sunday, 1939, in Washington, D.C.
After being denied the opportunity to perform at Constitution Hall because of her color, she brought tens of thousands to tears on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with her moving rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
WATCH: “Marian Anderson Sings at the Lincoln Memorial” Newsreel Story
Anderson never let the prejudice of some color her view of the many. “You lose a lot of time hating people,” she once said. She judged others by the content of their character long before Dr. King employed the phrase, and she loved America despite the sins of a few.
Marian Anderson, in her own words:
- If you have a purpose in which you can believe, there's no end to the amount of things you can accomplish.
- Everyone has a gift for something, even if it is the gift of being a good friend.
- As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.
- When you stop having dreams and ideals—well, you might as well stop altogether.
- I suppose I might insist on making issues of things. But that is not my nature, and I always bear in mind that my mission is to leave behind me the kind of impression that will make it easier for those who follow.
- None of us is responsible for the complexion of his skin. This fact of nature offers no clue to the character or quality of the person underneath.
- There are many persons ready to do what is right because in their hearts they know it is right. But they hesitate, waiting for the other fellow to make the first move—and he, in turn, waits for you.
- When I sing, I don’t want them to see that my face is black. I don’t want them to see that my face is white. I want them to see my soul. And that is colorless.
The Plant Doctor
Undoubtedly the most accomplished black scientist of the twentieth century, George Washington Carver (1864-1943) invented more than 300 uses for the peanut and 100 uses for the sweet potato. His contributions to the field of botany were legion. Farmers the world over benefited greatly from his insights and discoveries on crop rotation and fertilization.
In the latter decades of his life, he tirelessly promoted peanuts and sweet potatoes, Tuskegee University, and interracial harmony. A deeply Christian and humble man, he exuded love and integrity. To know him was to love him back, because he devoted his years to improving life every way he could—especially by the personal example he set.
WATCH: George Washington Carver "The Plant Doctor" Revolutionized Farming Industry | Biography
George Washington Carver, in his own words:
- When our thoughts—which bring actions—are filled with hate against anyone, Negro or white, we are in a living hell. That is as real as hell will ever be.
- Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater. Keep your thoughts free from hate, and you need have no fear from those who hate you.
- I know that my Redeemer lives. Thank God I love humanity, complexion doesn’t interest me one single bit.
- How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.
- Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses. There is no short cut to achievement.
- Start where you are, with what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.
- When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.
- No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.
- When I was young, I said to God, “God, tell me the mystery of the universe.” But God answered, “That knowledge is for me alone.” So I said, “God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.” Then God said, “Well George, that’s more nearly your size.’ And then he told me.
The Great Educator
The renowned founder of the Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University), Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) epitomized the idea that black progress after slavery must be rooted in self-improvement and entrepreneurship. His autobiographical work, Up From Slavery, is a timeless classic.
Washington was a great teacher because he was such a perfect example. He could instruct young people to develop skills and chart a path toward a productive, happy life because he did it so well himself. The vocational schools he started successfully educated a generation of blacks at a time when education wasn’t easy for blacks to get. Washington’s story is nicely depicted in this short video.
Booker T. Washington, in his own words:
- The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do.
- Character, not circumstances, makes the man.
- In any country, regardless of what its laws say, wherever people act upon the idea that the disadvantage of one man is the good of another, there slavery exists. Wherever, in any country the whole people feel that the happiness of all is dependent upon the happiness of the weakest, there freedom exists.
- I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.
- I learned the lesson that great men cultivate love, and that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak…I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.
- Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.
- No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward.
- My whole life has largely been one of surprises. I believe that any man's life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements of this kind if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life — that is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living.
- I am afraid that there is a certain class of race-problem solvers who don't want the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public.
Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington—three great African Americans whose wisdom deserves to resonate and inspire for many generations to come.