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Child Watch® Column: "Missing: Leadership and Core Values"

Release Date: March 15, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

"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.”

--Dr. Benjamin E. Mays
President, Morehouse College

Dr. 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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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. Dr. 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 Dr. Mays helped shape was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he lovingly eulogized on that campus after his 1968 assassination.

Who are our Dr. Mayses today – our moral compasses in crucial sectors of American life? What a contrast Dr. Mays’ example is to that of a college president in the headlines recently, Dr. James Wagner of Emory University, who was criticized for praising the 1787 compromise declaring that every slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of state representation in Congress as an example of “noble achievement” that allowed Northern and Southern White congressmen to “continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union.”

We have struggled for over two centuries to overcome the crippling birth defects and glaring hypocrisies between the eloquent words that “all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights” in our Declaration of Independence belied by slavery, Native American genocide, and exclusion of women and non-propertied White men in our founders’ deeds. That tragic hypocrisy resulted in a bloody Civil War that took more than 530,000 American lives and a post-Reconstruction era with Jim Crow laws, decades of struggle, and many lost lives, countless marches, lawsuits, and legislative efforts to achieve major civil rights legislation. And we must still be vigilant and fight to protect the hard earned social and racial progress over the last half century from being undermined by voter suppression, the Cradle to Prison Pipeline, mass incarceration, and pervasive economic and educational inequalities. What kind of message did Dr. Wagner’s words send to Emory’s Black students, who were quickly joined by some White students, faculty members, and others in denouncing his endorsement of the decision that codified less-than-fully-human status as “5/5ths outrageous”?

And what message did it send to students and citizens of every color when Dr. Mary Jane Saunders, the president of Florida Atlantic University, sold the naming rights to its stadium for six million dollars to the private prison company GEO Group? At a protest rally on campus, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union cited GEO Group’s “well-publicized record of abuse and neglect,” and quoted from an order of U.S. Judge Carlton Reeves describing one of their correctional facilities for minors and older teenage prisoners in Mississippi as “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions” and “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

I do not believe this is the ideal of universities producing leaders “who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting the ills” that Dr. Mays sought and taught. Who are the successor leaders today to Dr. Mays? Where are today’s moral leaders in other critical sectors who challenge and set the example for the rest of us? Where are today’s Abraham Joshua Heschels or Reinhold Niebuhrs or Eleanor Roosevelts or Dorothy Days? Where are Senators like Phil Hart and Wayne Morse who helped set a tone of political discourse too missing today in our legislative bodies? Where will the next leaders we can look up to as courageous and sacrificial champions of justice like Dr. King, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney come from?

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 twenty small Newtown children and their teachers? Are we content to have deadly assault weapons treated as normal consumer products like toasters or vacuum cleaners? How have we come to normalize violence and unbridled commercialization unmoored from common and moral sense and public safety

Is this the best we have to pass on to our children and grandchildren and the next generation of leaders the nation and world need today and tomorrow? Do corporate profits from dangerous products or harmful practices trump children’s security and safety in our nation? Is compromise that allows gross or some significant human injustice the best we can expect from American democracy? Isn’t it time to engage in a fuller discussion about the breakdown of core values in America and the values we do agree on and need and want to instill in the next generation? What does it mean to be an American? 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. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.”

Senator Kennedy continued: “Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

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

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by kedmond1 at: March 22, 2013
There's sooo many evils in the world. How can one person fight them all?

Submitted by Omowale at: March 21, 2013
Remarkable and right on time. I have met Dr. Mays while I was a student at Interdenominational Theological Institute in the early 70's. His sermon, Be kind to Judas, is a theological and ethical treasure of the highest order.Thus we drift to an abyss and social decay,or reform. Dr. Mays describes what happens when our value system and behavior leads us to be committed (emotionally and intellectually) to oppressor values, peoples, and cultures. Dr. Edelman, we can do better, but not without struggle that confronts and transforms. Thanks

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 20, 2013
Let's take our country back. Is this who we want to be? Is this who most of us are? MWE is well-spoken and right-on. Let's go, America. Let's cultivate thoughtfulness, sincerity and compassion in all of our citizens. Take action now!

Submitted by Liz at: March 20, 2013
Let's go MWE! Let's go, America! Is this really who we want to be? Is this the country we want it to be for future generations! Let's take action now. Get involved. Among other things, let's BAN ASSAULT WEAPONS and take our country back.

Submitted by panda at: March 20, 2013
Very inspiring!

Submitted by Just me 'n you at: March 19, 2013
Well. Eloquent. What will we do? Where are our leaders? As we the poor, beached and bereft, stand facing the approaching tidal wave, looking for leaders that we may cower behind for that brief moment before the deluge sweeps us all away so cleanly, that it appears we've never existed. How important is it that we, in those brief seconds, have some one to blame for our fates, a sacrifice of the people to appease forces that we will not allow ourselves to understand, as though understanding on our part imparts criminality or the taint of insanity? Who, indeed, will be brave enough to function as an escutcheon on the ragged coat of arms of the poor, voluntarily suffering our same fate? To be damned and discarded with us? Sans pay,lucrative reality show contract, or a political posting? What we hear already, too late now, strong and implacable, are the hoots and howls of the "new generation of the computer literate and science minded." The Chapellian 'wrong people', our new saviors, fast ushering in the demise of all who haven't caught on to the promise of exclusion and control, illusory to be sure, that this brand of literacy and competencies offer. What now passes for intelligence,wisdom and compassion is technical competence and a jejune, ironic posture. I hear knuckle and knife dragging comments everyday from those who are not slow to realize that they are indeed in the vanguard of a changing tide. That they, in fact, are the surge itself. We will do as we have always done. We will endure. We will be safe harbor for all of our children. We will reach out and catch hold to those near by us. Each, individually thinking him or herself alone, forming a great net or catchment until time and tide change as it inevitably does.

Submitted by Eureka at: March 18, 2013
This is a breath of fresh air. It’s time to pave the way for the current and future generation. Therefore; preserving the past, addressing the now, and molding the future must be united with we. Our current and future generation cannot prevail without moral values for all. Cradle from prison pipeline can only be reduce/avoided; once we live up to it takes a village to raise a child. We have come so far from just a simple smile or, noticing injustice within our community and doing nothing about it.

Submitted by PThomas at: March 18, 2013
We seem to have lost our way in society. People make arguements in calm and measured ways for postions that are morally wrong and reprehensible. Congratulations to Dr. Edelman for clearing the air in terms of what type of leaders we need today.

Submitted by David at: March 16, 2013
Thanks for the most inspirational words I've read in decades. We are suffering such a draught of leadership. You've put together everything I believe that my life stands for.

Submitted by favored at: March 16, 2013

Submitted by John at: March 16, 2013
Bravo! We need to cultivate a sense of community that respects the individual while putting the needs of the community first.

Submitted by Leslie Cornfeld at: March 15, 2013
This is an extraordinarily powerful essay. I will read it to my children -- and send it to people I care about. Thank you MWE for being the moral compass for us all.

Submitted by Amy at: March 15, 2013
l agree with her!!

Submitted by Iris at: March 15, 2013
The is the truth, as education we need to rethink what is it that we are doing. As parents we need to rethink what is important and as a community we need to remind ourselves it take a village to raise a child. we must stop turning out head and start to care.

Submitted by progwoman at: March 15, 2013
Thank you for this, MWE. You raise a crucial point here. Who will lead and inspire our young people? I think of Brian Stevenson, the human rights lawyer, and of Senator Elizabeth Warren and of Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, but none of them has a national pulpit or university presidency. More and more our university presidents are fundraisers first and foremost, not the best position for moral leadership.

Submitted by YomiO at: March 15, 2013
What a challenge to all of us - educators, parents, people, caregivers, and more, to rethink a lot of things - what do we value, who are we accountable to or responsible for, and perhaps more. Personally, I feel very challenged and weary because I do not know where to start. Thank you.

Submitted by winnie at: March 15, 2013
how can i help to get these words more widely into the world? director Sojourner Truth Center St Petersburg,Fl

Submitted by Dwyn Mounger at: March 15, 2013
Many thanks, Ms. Edelman! Well said. Dwyn Mounger, Knoxville, TN

Submitted by Lisaee at: March 15, 2013
I loved this column. As a matter of fact, I enjoy reading all of Dr. Edelman's columns. They are always so inspiring and on point. Mostly, they cause me to think about the world I live in. And, being such a small person in this huge society. Is there anything I do to make the world a better place.

Submitted by Joyce at: March 15, 2013
This is a wonderful and thoughtful column by a marvelous human being. She says what needs to be said, free from clichés, sound bytes and buzzwords. We are all Americans and we need to work together to build that Greater Good that has been our nation's ideal all along. Let's get going!