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Missing Leadership and Core Values

Marian Wright Edelman | 3/20/2013, 1:13 p.m.

"It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates, men fluent in speech and able to argue their way through; but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private--who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting the ills." - Benjamin E. Mays

Benjamin E. Mays, Morehouse College's president from 1940-1967, said this about the kind of men and leaders he expected Morehouse to produce. As a student at neighboring Spelman College, I heard and saw President Mays often and had the privilege of singing in Morehouse's Sunday morning chapel choir and hearing this great man's wisdom. Of the six college presidents in the Atlanta University academic complex, Mays was the one students looked up to most. He inspired and taught us by example and stood by us when we challenged Atlanta's Jim Crow laws in the sit-in movement to open up public accommodations to all citizens.

President Mays taught us that "not failure, but low aim is sin" and warned that "the tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities." As students we hungrily internalized his unerring belief that we were God's instruments for helping transform the world, and like many others who heard him frequently, I often repeated his words. One of the many Morehouse students President Mays helped shape was Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he lovingly eulogized on that campus after his 1968 assassination.

At the same time that we have a crisis in visible servant leadership examples, we have a crisis in core values. Are we content to be a society where virtually anything is available for profit or for sale, including the sale over the counter at Wal-Mart and other stores of deadly assault weapons capable of gruesome and senseless mass destruction like that which ravaged 20 small Newtown, Conn. children and their teachers?

What does it mean to be a human being? Robert Kennedy said this to students at the University of Kansas in 1968 about the need to rethink how we measure success in America:

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that--counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage."

I hope and pray we will not raise a new generation of children with high intellectual quotients and low caring and compassion quotients; with sharp competitive edges but dull cooperative instincts; with highly developed computer skills but poorly developed consciences; with a gigantic commitment to the big "I" but little sense of responsibility to the bigger "we"; with mounds of disconnected information without a moral context to determine its worth; with more and more knowledge and less and less imagination and appreciation for the magic of life that cannot be quantified or computerized; and with more and more worldliness and less and less wonder and awe for the sacred and everyday miracles of life. I hope as parents, educators, and faith, community, public and private sector leaders that we will raise children who care and work for justice and freedom for all.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.