As King would have wanted, leaders standing up


Sunday, January 20, 2019

The eve of celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.'s life seems an appropriate moment to update the progress observed along the long road to racial equality while recognizing acts of courage seen in the spirit of King's life. One such example came just last week on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill where a King-like action occurred.

King's life was consumed by an epic mission. The principles of equal opportunity and justice were enshrined on the parchment of our Constitution. But during his lifetime, much of the nation, as King's often painful and sometimes deadly campaign bore out, had forgotten or ignored the founders' covenant that all Americans should be afforded the full rights and privileges of citizenship.

It took a 5-year, bloody civil war a century and a half ago to end the institution of slavery. It would take another 100 years, and the work — and deaths — of King and others before the nation would meet its legal obligations to root out institutional racial discrimination.

Yet, as observed in Charlottesville, Va., and in other venues just within the last few years, lingering vestiges of racial bigotry and hate remain. King’s mission will require more work and probably more lives.

There are positive signs, however, that the momentum of King's work is still moving the train down the track. That was apparent in the response to the deadly violence that erupted in Charlottesville in 2017 when white supremacists descended on the venerable home to University of Virginia, an institution created by none other than founder Thomas Jefferson.

White supremacists, Nazis and others, recruited from all over the nation, were there for a "Unite The Right" rally and specifically focused on preventing removal of a statue to the Confederacy, one of thousands erected a century ago to glorify the "Lost Cause" — the South's effort at succession that cost a civil war. Local efforts were underway to remove the statute with its symbolic preservation of institutions — slavery and racial oppression in particular — that no longer represent America's culture and values.

As most Americans, in disbelief, watched  the racially-driven, and ultimately deadly clash, our president Donald Trump chose to take the political road most advantageous to him, decrying racism but also claiming there were "very fine people on both sides," with an apparent tip of the hat to the white supremacists. Such an acknowledgment from the president, legitimizing the cause of white supremacy, was followed by a chorus of protests from both Republican and Democrat leaders.

That solidarity of condemnation, even to a nation often split by the issues, illustrated there would be no devolution toward a racial divide. It also was a rebuke of the president and his pandering to the alt-right cadres of his base. In effect it said: No, Mr. President, white supremacists are not "very fine people."

Unfortunately, racially-motivated actions are not going away anytime soon, which is why leaders are needed who understand the consequences of not standing up to injustices, of not rejecting actions and attitudes that condone racist attitudes.

In that light, another expression of leadership in the face of adversity over race came just last week, again over a Confederate statue.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, who recently announced plans to retire at the end of the current semester, also made the decision last week to remove the base and plaques remaining at the campus site of the Confederate statue "Silent Sam." The statue itself had been torn down by protesters last summer.

Folt, who made the decision after the UNC Board of Governors, coaxed by conservative lawmakers, had tip-toed around the political ramifications of moving or remounting the statute, said the action was taken out of concern for campus safety, to protect the university and its students.

Yet, for her thoughtful and justified actions, potentially saving UNC its own violent or deadly protest reminiscent of Charlottesville, the university system Board of Governors fired her, sending her packing at the end of this month.

The well-respected chancellor may not be part of this year's graduation exercises, but her actions have given UNC's class of 2019 an inspiring lesson — an early commencement address — about how leadership requires tough, but justifiable decisions and a willingness to accept the consequences of making them. As King himself put it: "The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people."

Folt, one of the good ones, leaves a very un-silenced demonstration of good leadership.