‘The Content of Their Character’: Remembering Dr. King’s Words

martin luther king jr portraitI was politically active starting in the mid-1960s. In retrospect, I’m really glad to have experienced such a turbulent and exciting time in our history. Sometimes it can be hard to explain to younger generations what it felt like back then.

On this 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, the event that framed the famous speech of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, it is both sad and joyful to think of the hope he inspired. Dr. King framed his speech with the idea of God overseeing all of our actions. It seemed that this connection with the divine, which he believed had been lost, was going to be the salvation of our country and of its people.

Shift forward from 1963 to the recent suicide of a rising young actor Lee Thompson Young. Some of you may know him as Detective Frost on the cable TV show Rizzoli and Isles. Although it would have been great if he had been given more of substance to do, he was a fresh and exciting presence on the show. His suicide was a shock to those around him who were unaware of his despair. He was unable to reach out for the help that might have saved him. His death is a loss, not only to his family, but also to those of us who enjoyed watching him.

As pointed out in one of the media releases mentioning his death, Lee was a Priest of Oshun in the Yoruba faith. I was told that he was initiated in Brooklyn, and that after his initiation his career started to take off. He seems to come from a line of Yoruba priests. I’m saddened that his faith was unable to give him the support he needed to get help with his depression. Perhaps he didn’t turn to his ancestors or the Orisas when he was in pain.

Several media outlets mentioned his Yoruba faith, in articles which presented the beliefs of the Yoruba in a totally distorted and ignorant way. This was infuriating to me, not only because it is my faith, but also because it speaks to a larger issue that still remains despite the gains of the past 50 years.

That issue is intolerance of someone or something that is different. Intolerance is responsible for many of the world’s ills. We see it in a religious/spiritual context in the Middle East. We see it in the racism and homophobia that still exists. We see it in our immigration policies, health care policies, and education policies.

King spoke about people being judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The concept of character as being the most important factor when it comes to judging others is a Yoruba belief. There is a Yoruba proverb that says Iwa l’ewa, or character is beauty.

King understood that instinctively, although his faith was Christianity. Lee Thompson Young’s religious beliefs should play no part in the presentation of his death. They wouldn’t have even been mentioned had he been Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

On this 50th anniversary of an historic occasion, let us all make an effort to accept and embrace our differences. Let us all make an effort to focus on what is really important in life: developing Iwa Pele (good character).

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  • Richard

    September 5th, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Strong moral and ethical character is sadly something that has been lost through the years. It used to be that character was so important to how we viewed a person. it didn’t matter what kind of clothes he wore or what kind of car he drove but what mattered was that he stayed true to his word and that he was kind and honest. Today those aren’t the things that seem to matter anymore. It feels as if we have very much lost sight of the things in life today that are important and have replaced it with things that are petty and superficial. I am not sure that given how much we have allowed those values to fall away that we will ever be able to recover those as imprtant things to society as a whole again.

  • bettina

    September 7th, 2013 at 4:52 AM

    so sad that yet another young person has lost his life due to those inner struggles that he simply felt like he couldn’t speak with anyone about and that he couldn’t manage to come to grips with on his own

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