On Black History Month

02/03/2012  |  Ronald Court President, Booker T. Washington Society

When an opera critic hailed her as, ‘perhaps the greatest black opera singer of all time,’ famous soprano Leontyne Price responded with, “What’s black got to do with it?”


Her fierce dedication, discipline, training and hard work – in a word, character – not color,  defined her.

Yet, news editors around the country are likely rummaging through archives to recycle columns today in commemoration of Black History Month.

We’ve come to expect articles on the ‘usual suspects’: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and my favorite, Booker T. Washington. Still, it seems a bit patronizing to set aside one month in twelve to commemorate a few great people who happen to be of similar complexion.

Maybe it’s time to emphasize color less and character more.

According to John Adams, the American Revolution occurred in the hearts and minds of the American people years long before shots were fired at Concord and Lexington. He saw the War for Independence as merely an “effect and a consequence” of the real American Revolution.

Similarly, the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency is can be seen as the ‘effect and a consequence’ of changes that occurred in the hearts and minds of people over several years (decades) leading up to the election. Too, in this cycle, Herman Cain, a Republican who happens to be black, was a viable Presidential candidate until he dropped out. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge and embrace the idea that America is entering a post-racial age.

It is not how we look, but how we live that defines us.

Dr. King’s dream that people not be judged on the basis of their color is being realized. But more work remains to realize the second part of his dream: that people be judged on the content of their character. In this, he echoed the vision and teachings of Booker T. Washington. When it comes to character, Booker T. wrote the book. Literally. His book, “Character Building,” is a compilation of talks he gave Sunday evenings to Tuskegee students. It is freely available to download www.BTWsociety.org/.

Sadly, much of Dr. Washington’s timeless wisdom and plain advice has been ignored by too many for too long. And to one degree or another, we have all suffered the consequences.

If, as Du Bois wrote a century ago, “the problem of the twentieth century (was) the problem of the color line," what will be the problem of the twenty-first century?

The economy? Terrorism? Global warming? Political corruption? Reasonable people will differ as to the degree one may present a more ‘clear and present danger’ than another. Yet, these problems are merely the consequence of actions taken by individuals that have at their root, a failure of character.

Thus, I believe the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the ‘character line.’

If the solution to the problem of the color line lay in emphasizing civil rights, may I suggest that the solution to the problem of the character line can be found in emphasizing personal responsibility?

Rather than a “black history month,” why not, say, a “character month?”

The appeal to let government impose changes in society from the top down will always be with us. Yet, history has shown, time and again, that the slow but sure way, is to change hearts and minds from the inside out.

Ronald Court is Founder and President of the Booker T. Washington Society.
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