These days, America is hearing a lot about civil rights. And I believe deeply that America must always be making sure it is protecting the civil rights of its citizens.
After all, we affirmed this purpose in our Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal, [and] they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
These words can only mean one thing. God endows mankind with rights, and it is the duty of America to defend those rights for its citizens.
Today, I cast my eyes a century back, to the struggle for civil rights. I look at that chapter of America’s history, and what it teaches us.
And I look for heroes, people whose example inspire us today – and give us hope for tomorrow.
I don’t have to look far.
Booker T. Washington was born in 1856, the son of a slave woman named Jane. His father was a white plantation owner. He began life at the lowest rung of the ladder in America.
But he rose quickly up that ladder. And by his own efforts, he became America’s premier voice for full civil rights in his time.
He founded the Tuskegee Institute. He was a champion for the legal challenges to Jim Crow. He attracted the financial support of John Rockefeller, Julius Rosenwald and others, so that Southern blacks could build good schools.
He was an adviser to presidents, and they listened to his advice.
And over the course of his lifetime, he planted the seeds that became the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr.
He was a giant and he taught us important lessons about what for civil rights really means.
Booker T. Washington understood the realities of his time. He knew there were bigots and racists all over America. In the South AND in the North.
He was not naïve. And he knew that the fight for equality would take generations.
There were four things he focused on. Four things that he said would lead to full civil rights for blacks. Four things that he said black Americans had to do.
Industry. That means work and invention. And so he trained generations of black Americans, men and women both, to be trained engineers, architects and other skilled professions. That way, white America would see that black Americans would work hard. He also wanted black Americans to see the dignity and reward that comes with hard work.
Thrift. That meant savings and investment. Booker T. Washington saw that communities that didn’t invest in themselves went nowhere. So when someone wanted to build schools in Southern black communities, he insisted that half the money came from the community. The lesson was clear: When a community contributes to its own future, it has a future.
Intelligence. One of the great sins of racism was the theory that blacks were not as smart as whites. This view persists among bigots today. Washington knew that the only way to fight that falsehood was with truth – so he made sure black Americans could learn … and learn well. He was an educator all his life, because he believed that intelligence means power. He was right.
Property. Black Americans sometimes didn’t own property because they couldn’t. But sometimes, they wouldn’t. He insisted that blacks exercise their property rights because he knew that citizenship begins with the right of a man to own something. In property there is freedom.
I think of these lessons because they apply today.
They apply to all of us. Even those of us who think of our civil rights as secure.
If we don’t demonstrate industry… practice thrift… develop our intelligence… and assert our rights to private property, what claim do we have to freedom?
What good are civil rights if we don’t act as good citizens?
Liberty and freedom and dignity may be guaranteed to us. But we still have to use our rights.
God does not grant us equal rights so that we can do nothing. He wants us to be his agents of freedom.
Booker T. Washington knew that civil rights are not bestowed by man. They are earned. And they are earned not once, in one generation, but every day, by every generation. Every American must understand that the strength and durability of their civil rights depend on what they do with their lives.
That’s how this country became great. That’s how black Americans won what was their right. And that is how we will see better tomorrows.
Thank you, may God bless you and may God bless the Republic.