January 17, 2003 -- “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.”

Two things are significant about this statement from Martin Luther King’s 1963 civil rights speech. First, it succinctly identifies the principle by which individuals should evaluate one another. And second, it is a principle that has been abandoned by most black leaders and ignored by all too many black Americans who claim to honor what King stood for.


Let’s start by defining what is meant by character. Character is created through our choices and resulting moral habits, based on a code of values. Thus, for example, an individual might decide that the only way to live a happy, prosperous, and fulfilling life is always to face the truth, whether pleasant or not—indeed, to seek it out. Perhaps that individual, rather than acting rashly, submits emotions—anger, frustration, hate, lust—to examination to make certain that reactions to them are in keeping with his or her basic principles. Perhaps that individual does not assume that the world owes him or her a living and thus plans and trains for a career. Perhaps that individual bounces back from disappointments, persevering even in the face of unfairness and prejudice. Perhaps that individual practices self-reflection, readily acknowledging and correcting personal mistakes and taking joy and pride in his or her achievements.

Such an individual’s character personifies the virtues of rationality, honesty, temperance, personal responsibility, fortitude, and integrity.

But the most important fact about our character is that we each create it for ourselves, through our own free choices. That’s why individuals deserve praise for their moral achievements and condemnation for their moral failings. Yes, it is helpful if individuals have the advantage of good parents and family, good teachers, and a good, supportive culture. Yet there are plenty of individuals who have these advantages but who turn out rotten, while others who lack them turn out well.

This individualist understanding of character stands in stark contrast to a racist approach. Race and ethnicity are accidents of birth and tell us nothing about how to judge any given individual. Racism insults and degrades all individuals by judging them as members of a biological group rather than on their own achievements. No individual of moral character would want to judge others or be judged by such a standard.

Dr. King rightly fought against government laws that treated individuals differently based on skin color. Fortunately, those laws have been gone for many decades. And fortunately, most whites now accept Dr. King’s standard of moral character rather Jesse Jackthan skin color as the measure of individuals. But unfortunately, most black leaders in America today have taken up the ugly racist ethos that they fought in whites.

They want governments to use race as a basis for special favors, affirmative action, and handouts. Men and women of high moral character would neither need nor want such ill-gotten alms. Of course, the welfare state, which forcibly redistributes wealth based on group membership, fosters and institutionalizes such racism. Few black leaders celebrate the free market that allows blacks to prosper to the limits of their abilities and ambition. And most, by ignoring the need for moral character and telling other blacks that they’re not responsible for their situation in life, have promoted the broken families, dysfunctional communities, and mindless, violent culture that indeed makes it harder for many blacks to progress.

Some black leaders use race for straight-out extortion; Jesse Jackson shakes down guilty businessmen by threatening to scream “racism” the way a whore might try to shake down a virtuous man by threatening to scream “rape.” Johnnie Cochran and Al Sharpton want “reparations” for slavery, demanding that whites who never owned slaves, and whose great grandfathers might have died in the war that abolished slavery, pay money to blacks who never were slaves. Worst of all, such criminal proposals are passed off as “enlightened” and “moral” to the morally confused of all races.

No man or woman of character would associate with such racist policies, premises or practices. Fortunately, many African-Americans of character are thinking for themselves, pursuing careers not based on their race but rather on their individual interests and competencies, and succeeding well—Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are two recent standouts. It’s fitting that King’s birthday was inauguration day for Michael Steele, Maryland’s first black lieutenant governor, who is a Republican who understands that character and sound morals are prerequisites for any individual who wishes to flourish.

It is time for all Americans, and especially black Americans, to appreciate Dr. King’s words and to finish the job of creating a society in which individuals truly are judged by the content of their character.

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Edward Hudgins

About The Author:

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.

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