Excerpts from his speech at the MLK Celebration
I grew up in a small town about an hour south of here. There weren’t very many people of color in my hometown. My mother is the most non-judgmental and accepting person of people of all colors, cultures, ethnicities, and nations. Her hobby is the study of archeology, physical and cultural anthropology, and paleontology. She passionately read the National Geographic, watched documentaries, and encouraged me to study all the ways of humans, their histories and to embrace all people of the world.
However, I will never understand how she ended up marrying an alcoholic that liked no person of any color, culture, or demographic different from his own. While my mother secretly taught me tolerance of other cultures and descents, my father ridiculed me for not hating blacks, Jews, Hispanics, LGBT, people with special needs and any other demographic he could stereotype. He used the most horrific language to describe others. And my silence angered him. The hatred he showed toward my mother and other women was more than I could take. What I do understand is why my mother stayed with him for so many years–fear. Fear of what he would do, how it would affect me and my brothers, and fear of things unspeakable.
Our vacations growing up were to historic civil war sites where he could pay homage to the confederacy and the generals of the south. By age 12, I began pushing back. I studied the Civil War and earned his ire by siding with the north or union on the car trips. At age 14, I squared up to him for the first time despite his threats. At age 15, I befriended one of the only black students in my class and remained best friends with him throughout. I would drive my friend all around town to school, practice, the movies, and more. My father was furious and called me names that would sicken you if I spoke them here. My father’s abuse of alcohol sent him down some very dark paths at times. I helped my mom raise my two brothers, and I grew up fast. The battles with my father were constant though. I became driven, intense, and fearless at a young age which carried over into sports and I received scholarships to play football and baseball at Missouri State University. My mother found the strength to divorce my dad when I graduated high school. The divorce brought out the worst in my father, but we were free from the daily abuse. Still, I battled nonstop with my father in front of my brothers until I graduated from college when we both had had enough of each other and parted ways for good.
In 1988, I was 5’9” and barely 170 pounds, as I began my college football and baseball careers. My first practice with my college team was an eye opener. The team was comprised of a mix of black and white players. I walked into the cafeteria for our first meal. The black players were sitting together at tables and the white players were sitting together at different tables. I vividly remember stopping with my food and staring–trying to decide where to sit. I found a table in a corner and sat alone. I had just gotten away from the daily bombardment of racism. I didn’t want any part of picking a side.
The practices and locker room were much different experiences. Many of the black players enjoyed the daily competition and loved to trash talk in fun. No one had ever trashed talk me other than my dad. I also did not know how to interact with the locker room banter of the black players. I wasn’t familiar with the pop music blasting from the boom box. I was uncomfortable and stayed to myself. I found myself especially avoiding the black leaders, the starting receiver, runningback, and linebacker. In my mind, I had no prejudice or bias in me. In my mind, I thought “I’m not racist, but I am not comfortable around them.” In my mind, my discomfort didn’t have to do with the color of their skin, it was about the way they interacted, spoke, and dominated the locker room culture. To make things worse, the receiver coach was black and was always singling me out and harassing me every single day. I started feeling it was because I was white. Being a defensive back, I took it out on his receivers every chance I could and earned a starting position part way through the season.
In my first game against Indiana State, I played the game of my life with an interception and run back, as well as a dozen tackles. However, we lost in a high scoring game, so afterwards the locker room was like a funeral home. No one said a word to me about the phenomenal game I had played, no one except three black leaders–the receiver, running back, and middle linebacker. They showered me with praise and encouragement and made me feel I was a critical part of the team. I was shocked, but I was also ashamed. In that moment, in that locker room in Terre Haute, Indiana, I realized I had judged them for the wrong reasons. I had not been accepting and tolerant as my mother had taught me to be. I had judged others not by the content of their character as Dr. Martin Luther King had urged 20 some years earlier. I thank the Lord for giving those three young men the character and leadership to reach out to me. They shaped my life in a glorious way because over the last 30 years, I have thought of that moment thousands of times.
What made that moment so impactful?
I had the foundation and education that my mother and others had given me to see in that moment the reality of the situation rather than the perception. However, it was the love that came from those teammates in that moment that I will never forget.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I can honestly say that the rest of my college career in sports was full of friendships with athletes of all colors and backgrounds.
I married someone that shares my values. My wonderful wife, Hillory, and I raised our children with the values and beliefs that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared with our nation including: “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
Later in life, I recruited real estate agents to my company of every race and demographic possible. As a school board member, I lobbied for the hiring of more teachers of color and backgrounds to help us with our increasingly diverse student population. And now as mayor of the city, I stand before you today face-to-face with what feels like a multitude of issues that directly or indirectly revolve around race.
As I reflect on it today, I see similar circumstances to what I experienced happening all around us. Some people, not all, are not tolerant or accepting of others. They probably feel the way I felt in that locker room–that they are not prejudice or biased, but that we have different values and different ways doing things. We try and explain away our intolerance with phrases like,
“I am not prejudice, but” or
“You don’t know where I came from or you wouldn’t think that”
“Not all Muslims are bad, but”
“Not to sound sexist, but”
Many understand these precursors are biased in nature, but in the age of real-time information and social media the art of coded language rules. Whether we realize it or not, whether it is accidental or not, our society perpetuates biased and often racist stereotypes.
At the national level, I see balanced debate. You can get both sides of every issue by simply turning the channel. The magnificence of this great country is that we have amazing intellectuals, heroes, and thought- provoking leaders in all sides of the political, governmental, media, and entertainment industries. Issues get heavily debated. The freedom of speech we have is what makes our country the greatest country in the world.
What happens at the local level though affects you and your family on a daily basis because the news is right in your backyard— where the debate is at your doorstep, where governmental decisions affect your family’s quality of life and safety. This is where one’s silence and absence from the conversation can tear apart the fabric of the community. What holds one back from weighing in on an issue? Are people afraid to weigh in? What keeps people from attending community conversations or commenting via other sources such as social media?
In the age of social media, the art of coded language rules. The local issues we face currently are not vetted thoroughly on social media. Social media is rampant with coded language and no accountability for the words chosen, and words, my friends, are a big, big deal.
As the Mayor of the City, even I have to question where the vetting of our local issues is taking place and by who? I wonder if all are being represented in the discussions, and if not, how do we change this? When citizens say they don’t want housing that brings “those kinds of people.” Who is asking what people they are referring to. Are they referring to the firefighter, teacher, and nurse making $40,000 a year? If they are not talking about the firefighter, teacher, or nurse, then what people are they referring to? Would someone give me the decoder to know exactly who they are referring to? Maybe someone can create an app to decode phrases that allude to something because I need one. Locally, who is going to stand up for any person that makes $40,000 a year, no matter what kind of job they have, city they come from, or the color of their skin?
I wonder if our citizens realize that Blue Springs has far greater density than Lee’s Summit. Overland Park has nearly twice our density. For a city our size, we are about as low density as you get. Living closer to your neighbors is not a bad thing. The good and bad we face in this world has little to do with proximity or income, they have to do with community and culture.
Locally, our citizens have been in great debate about our schools over the last year. Some are upset about the focus of the schools on equity, access, and the achievement gap. Some consider these coded words for focusing on black students and lower income students to the detriment of other students of all colors and needs. Some are upset that our superintendent wants to talk about equity. Nothing infuriated many people more than when the district was considering bringing in a speaker that had written books and done trainings regarding “white privilege.” Heaven forbid, we talk about white privilege or black privilege or male privilege or nationality privilege. With all the talk of keeping “those kind of people” out of our city, it sounds like we have an “income privilege” when it comes to our community. What about the “being born here privilege” that you have to overcome to be considered a true community member? Is that off limits too? Because I fought that stereotype every day of my election last year.
How do we come together as a community and have a healthy culture unless we talk about these things? This community has never talked so much about race, equity, achievement, access, and income more than it has in the last year and that is a good thing. Or is it?!
A black friend of mine, who has lived here for more than a decade told me last week that he didn’t want to come across as an angry black man. Okay, but is that right? I praise him for being aware of his words, tone, and how he comes off to others, but if a black man says the same thing that a white man does and is labeled an “angry black man” what does that really mean? I don’t worry about coming across as an angry white man. I WANT to be known for being fearless and relentless in pursuit of righteousness and goodness.
When people are passionate about their beliefs, they take action, they organize, they unite with others that have similar causes. This is how progress is made. This is how things get done. I question how productive these community conversations have been because I have not seen collaboration. What good does it do if all the people that think one way—are talking only to each other and all the people that think the other way are talking only to each other. If the people on one side never talk to the people on the other side what good will this do? Or worse yet, if the majority of the people in the community sit on the sidelines and show apathy, then others, no matter how few in numbers, will determine the direction of the school, the city, the state, or even the nation. It’s not the American way for a few people, with little regard for the many, to control the conversation and steer the ship. It’s the American way for the many to come together and make their voice heard.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”
The silent majority needs be accounted for and take their seat at the table. Sometimes all it takes is a show of hands to show who is in support.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
He challenged us to fulfill his dream of a nation where we are judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. You can be a part of fulfilling his dream in any way you feel comfortable. You may be the type that wants your voice to be heard and to champion a good cause. You may be the worker bee that gives to the cause behind the scenes. The good cause needs you. The cause is lost without you. You may be more comfortable in the digital world, using your computer or phone. Your influence in the age of digital disruption cannot be underestimated and the cause needs you.
Only if you listen carefully, and look within, and take his unfettered faith and proverbial wisdom into your heart will you be able to break through the coded language, the avoidance, and the fear to help others and to have a moment like I had in that locker room 30 years ago. It was the love they showed me that day that brought the light.
What Dr. King weaved into all of his writings and speeches was love, love, and love. No one is perfect, but we can show love. Liking everyone is nearly impossible, but we can show love. We can serve with love for others. We can debate and discuss with love in our hearts. That is what Martin Luther King not only challenged us to do, but he knew it was the only way we would fulfill his dream. The only way to deal with coded language is to do so with love. When we volunteer, speak out, or raise your hands with love in our hearts, we break down walls and barriers and are welcomed to the table for meaningful conversations where justice prevails, and goodness is done. Dr. Martin Luther King said all of this if you listen closely. Fifty years after his passing, I will give him the last word because his teachings are and always will be the way. “No, violence is not the way. Hate is not the way. Bitterness is not the way. We must stand up with love in our hearts, with a lack of bitterness and yet a determination to protest courageously for justice and freedom in this land.”