Since all men differ in aptitude, motivation, and ability, the cause of justice is all the more essential.
People are different. All people are different. The whole earth is teeming with a kind of wild diversity. A celebration of that wild diversity has always been one of the greatest strengths of the American way. We have build a society of respect, opportunity, and liberty precisely because we have not tried to squeeze everyone into a single mold.
Some people are stronger than others. Some people are brighter than others. Some people are healthier than others. They have different gifts. They have different abilities. They have different inclinations. They have different temptations. They have different liabilities.
There are tall people and short people, dark people and pale people, serious people and silly people, people who are mechanically inclined and people who are intellectually inclined, coordinated people and clumsy people, perceptive people and oblivious people, hale and hardy people and frail and sickly people. Thank goodness there are all kinds of people-because, it takes all kinds.
Obviously, all men are not equal. Nor would we ever want them to be.
We want all the citizens of our great nation to have equal opportunities. We want them to have equal access to the benefits of a free society. We want them to have equal justice. We want them to have equal rights. But we would never want to level the whole of life and make them equal-variety truly is the spice of life. Equal outcomes are as impossible as they are undesirable. But equal outlooks are as important as they are delightful.
Diversity is not just a fact of biology, it is a fact of sociology as well. Societies that recognize that diversity, protect that diversity, and celebrate that diversity are rare. But they are also free. That was a notion fully comprehended by the great American pioneers of civil rights.
The centerpiece of the Tuskegee University campus in southern Alabama is the Booker T. Washington monument. Upon a grand classical pedestal stands a remarkable bronze statue sculpted by Charles Keck in 1922. Washington himself is portrayed-stately, dignified, and venerable-standing with his eyes set upon the horizon while one hand is extended toward the future. With the other hand he is resolutely pulling back a thick veil-presumably the smothering cloak of Strabo-from the brow of a young man seated at his side. The man is obviously poor-he is only half-clothed, in stark contrast to the dapper presence of Washington-and is sitting upon the symbols of his labor, an anvil and a plow. But he too is gazing off into the distance while he grasps a massive academic textbook upon his knee. The inscription beneath this arresting image asserts, “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.”
The monument is a perfect tribute to the man. While his life-the long and difficult journey up from the obscurity of slavery to the heights of national influence and renown-is a remarkable testimony of individual achievement and personal sacrifice, the greatest legacy of Booker T. Washington was not what he accomplished himself, but what he helped thousands of others accomplish-both black and white.
He was born on this day in 1856, on a small tobacco plantation in the back country of Franklin County, Virginia. His nine years in slavery were spent in abject poverty. And even after emancipation, his family faced a grim hardscrabble existence.
When he was sixteen, he gained admittance to the Hampton Institute-one of the first schools established for former slaves. Though he was worked full-time as a janitor in order to pay his tuition, he graduated with honors in a mere three years. Upon graduation, he returned to his family and taught in the local grammar school. Before long though, his mentor at Hampton beckoned him to return to that institution where he became an instructor and assistant to the president. Shortly afterward, the state of Alabama contacted the school about the possibility of establishing a similar college there. Washington was recommended for the job. Thus, on July 4, 1881, at the age of twenty-five, Washington founded Tuskegee.
The obstacles facing him were enormous. There was no money, no faculty, no campus, no land, and no student body. Indeed, there was nothing except the resolution of the state to launch the school and the determination of Booker T. Washington to raise up a whole new generation of leaders from the rubble of the South and the legacy of slavery. Nevertheless, before his death in 1915, Tuskegee had grown to encompass a 2,000 acre campus of 107 buildings with more than 1,500 students and nearly 200 faculty members. As a result of his efforts, Washington became the first great leader for the civil rights of all Americans.
He always emphasized the importance of education, hard work, and self-discipline for the advancement of any man or woman-regardless of race. He became a celebrity, much in demand as a speaker and lecturer around the country and as a consultant and confidante to powerful politicians and community leaders. Though he was criticized by some because he refused to use his influence for direct political agitation, he had obviously begun the long process toward the reconciliation of long sundered communities and races.
Interestingly, he never tried to minimize the differences between the nation's distinctive regions or races. Indeed, he celebrated the diversity of blacks among whites, southerners among northerners, laborers among administrators, poor among rich, immigrants among native born, and hale among handicapped.
He did not want the opportunity to make all men equal. He just wanted an equal opportunity for all men. He did yearn for a chance to make all men the same. He just wanted all men to have the same chance. He did not want to level the players, just the field they played on.
Because of his frank admission of the differences of men yet his firm conviction that the founding principles of freedom ought to be applied to all those different sorts of men, he was asked to deliver an address at the Cotton States' Exposition in 1895. The invitation was noteworthy in and of itself since his audience would include both white and black Southerners. As a result, his speech received enormous attention throughout the country-it helped galvanize public opinion in favor of black self-improvement.
He boldly asserted in that famous speech, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all. If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen. Effort or means so invested will pay a thousand percent interest. These efforts will be twice blessed-blessing him that gives and him that takes. There is no escape through law of man or God from the inevitable: The laws of changeless justice bind oppressor with oppressed; And close as sin and suffering joined, we march to fate abreast.”
Washington had already instilled his philosophy of hard work, competence, and community-mindedness in thousands of students all across the country who were making a substantive difference in the welfare of African-American families, churches, neighborhoods, and businesses. And now, that message was going out to the entire nation, thus ushering in a new era of civil rights for all Americans.
He did not attempt to ignore differences in ability, differences in culture, or differences in a multitude of other vital aspects of our American life and society. But he saw in the great diversity of Americans advantage rather than liability. As a result, he was able to lay the philosophical groundwork for a workable civil rights reform movement. It would not rest on the utopian idealism of the ivory tower theorist. Instead, it was grounded in the hard-edged reality of practical, every day living.
Economic systems that fail to account for differences in motivation, proclivity, incentive, and consequence ultimately collapse under the weight of their own foolishness. Communism failed, not because it was a wicked and perverse scheme, but because for all of the best intentions of its most beneficient theorists, it simply refused to take into account the differences between people. It could not effectively incorporate such basic aspects of life in this poor fallen world as the necessity of division of labor, the law of supply and demand, and the idea of diminishing returns.
Similarly, coaches who attempt to play members of their teams without exercising any discretion or discernment based on ability, aptitude, or inclination is likely to be faced with a very long and difficult season.
An orchestra leader who arbitrarily mixed and matched musicians without regard to their skills, their favored instruments, or their level of competency can hardly be expected to produce beautiful music. An artist who applies paints to a canvas with the assumption that all colors are altogether equal can hardly be expected to produce a work of beauty. A writer who fails to exercise discrimination in the use of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar is not likely to rival Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, or Chesterton any time soon. A politician who regards all ideas, all policies, and all legal interpretations as equally valid cannot be expected to remain in office too terribly much longer. A welfare program which treats a fourth generation single mother in inner city Chicago the same way as a laid off steel worker from Pittsburgh exactly the same, providing exactly the same services, and offering exactly the same benefits is never going to succeed. If we were to approach a farmer with a failed crop, a software entrepreneur with a failed start up, and a high school drop out with a failed GED in precisely the same manner, we are bound to insult them all.
A modicum of discernment, discretion, definition, differentiation, delineation, and discrimination is necessary in every field and every endeavor and every discipline in this poor fallen world.
The fact is variety really is the spice of life. Differences matter. And they are a good thing. It is when we accommodate ourselves to that reality that we are able to make a difference for good in this world. In the first century the Apostle Paul described this very principle while discussing varieties of spiritual gifts within the fledgling church. Writing to the Corinthians he said, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
In other words, when we allow variety to work for us, when we embrace our differences so that we can have unity in diversity, and when we can tolerate distinctives in others, then we will be able to effect that which is good and right and true. The we will be able to effect that which is beautiful, just, and free.