JACKSON, Tenn. – While weighty issues of ethics are often pronounced from pulpits and courthouses across our nation, matters of morality are usually embraced and digested best by children around our own family dinner tables. Discussions of right and wrong carry a greater air of practicality when the family can see the whites of everyone’s eyes and where the conversation is laced with “tell me about your day” and “pass the potatoes, please.”
At his inauguration in 1963, Alabama’s governor drew a proverbial line in the dust, threw the “gauntlet before the feet of tyranny” and infamously proclaimed, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Six months later, a court order was given and the National Guard was mobilized to ensure James Hood’s and Vivian Malone’s entrance into the University of Alabama. Foster Auditorium became the showdown’s location where the stand in the schoolhouse door simply could not withstand the force of truth and justice.
That evening, June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy courageously addressed the nation, delivering a bold and direct speech calling on each citizen to “stop and examine his conscience about this and other related events.” Describing the issue of racial prejudice as a moral issue, President Kennedy articulated an idea which was “as old as the scriptures” and “as clear as the American Constitution.” He called on “Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and similar establishments.”
Then he delivered what may be the most significant line of his speech. He knew that the heart of the race issue lay not only with lawmakers who labored at the Capitol, but with parents who were raising their children at home. Yes, there would be laws, “but” as Kennedy said, “legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.”
We now find ourselves more than a decade into the 21st century. I personally take joy in the fact that my sons find themselves perplexed by those in our nation’s history who treated others in such an inhumane fashion. For my kids, it’s hard to imagine such a world where “whites” drank out of one water fountain and “coloreds” drank out of another.
Progress is still to be made, but my children do live in a land where – in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. – “the sons of slaves and the sons of former slave-owners [are] able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.” My four children do in fact live in a place where they are judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Today’s challenges are unique. Just as our children cannot imagine the trials facing President Kennedy’s generation, I doubt he could have envisioned the day in which we live. As JFK challenged the nation concerning the racial problem of 1963, may we heed his words today. Let us realize that the solutions to society’s problems begin with us – in our own homes, around our own tables, with our own families.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Todd E. Brady is vice president for church relations at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.)