The life of Martin Luther King, Jr. calls us to remember that truth can be found not only in grant evaluations and reports, not only in surveys and community assessments, or in the vast sets of data available to us as philanthropists.
Dr. King reminds us that truth can be found in our hearts.
Extraordinary people of conscience and commitment show us that essential truths exist, and that we can discern these truths through love and the sense of justice that resides deep within us.
Dr. King wrote, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
These moral leaders risk their personal safety, position, and life to uphold freedom, justice, and human rights—asserting that denial of these is wrong—in absolute terms. Their clear teachings and example are, I believe, even more essential and urgent in America now, when it is more and more difficult to believe in anything.
The leaders of our government and our most powerful businesses endlessly debate key issues that influence our collective strength and welfare. No solid ground is found, no consensus achieved, no unifying vision or path forward developed to build our democracy, economy, and country. We are trapped in a contentious, litigious culture, with different versions of truth manufactured by competing interest groups.
In an era of disunity, mistrust, and disaffection, the clarity and vision of Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi show us that certain things remain rock-solid and undeniable. Keep your eye on freedom and justice, they say. You will discern the truth, they say, if you look to your heart. They show us that we can know what is essential, what needs to be done—if we open ourselves to truly seeing the world around us, to feeling love and empathy.
Such moral clarity renews and inspires. It flows in these words of Dr. King, in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964,
“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
The great leaders knew that opening ourselves to the world around us, to feeling love and empathy, would change the way we live in the world.
Through their actions and teachings, they show us ways to uphold freedom and justice. Civil disobedience was one way. Dr. King and others made civil disobedience a cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement, defying Jim Crow laws through sit-ins, violating laws and court orders prohibiting marches and boycotts, and accepting jail sentences to highlight racial injustice.
The activist, playwright, and leader Vaclav Havel calls us to another way of upholding freedom and justice in the world.
Havel spoke out against the oppression of Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s. Like some great moral leaders, he never anticipated or formally prepared for his calling; his conscience and profound sense of outrage pulled him into courageous, outspoken resistance, and ultimately into leadership roles. He was imprisoned several times. After the Soviet regime crumbled, Havel was nominated and elected president of the newly free country. As one account put it, ” Mr. Havel’s quiet authority and moral compass made him the unquestioned head of the opposition. Others were more forceful, self-important or impetuous. But it was the playwright’s voice that counted.”
Havel passed away in 2011. This past November, he was honored in Washington, DC, becoming only the fourth foreign leader to be represented in the U.S. Capitol Building. Havel is admired on both the left and right: by conservatives for his opposition to communism, and by liberals for his defense of freedom and championing of human rights. At the November ceremony, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi paid glowing tribute to Havel.
Not lost on observers was the irony that, after honoring Havel, legislators returned to their chambers and continued their endless arguing. For a moment, however, the political leaders of our divided country united around essential truths of freedom and justice, upheld and certified by this extraordinary man.
Vaclav Havel’s most influential teaching was that individuals can find strength within themselves to say and enact what they truly believe, stepping out of the shadow of lies and falsehoods, to “live in truth.”
Havel saw how groups, organizations, and societies play a game of pretending something is true, when in fact each individual knows that thing is a lie. He recognized, with passionate intensity, the cruelty and absurdity of collective pretending, how it demoralizes people, and he demonstrated through his actions how to pierce through and shatter the lies. In his essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel reflects,
“He (the greengrocer) begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth …”
Vaclav Havel’s message is a powerful yet intimate one, calling each of us to pretend no longer, and to summon the courage to step out, speak out, and live in truth.
I dedicate this essay to Elli Carroll, my Mom, who passed away January 10 at age 87. Elli devoted her skills and service the past 20 years to helping bring truth to light.
Senior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference.