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You Are What You Were

I believe in the capacity of people to change. If we could not, there would be no progress in the world. We are all informed by our experiences and you would have to be mighty dumb to repeat your known mistakes. The vast majority of us learn from them.

I had a friend who was popular and gifted. He was strong and he was popular. And he took advantage of it. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t try. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do. And almost all of the time he got away with it. If he couldn’t talk himself out of it, he was forgiven because it was just who he was. Imagine my surprise when he said he had been called by God to be a minister. I couldn’t see it. Here was a person who seemed to enjoy life. But he said he had found a better way to live. For more than two decades until his death, he lived by the principles of his new belief. He never looked down on other people but be committed himself to living and behaving differently. He had changed, and for the better.

There was no greater racist than LBJ. In addition to his often reported crude behavior, he would throw the N word around like it was a rag. It was what he knew best. But as president he saw what was best for America. He knew those old ideas just wouldn’t last. They couldn’t work. So he committed himself after the death of JFK, to the passage of legislation that recognized the full equality of man. The Civil Rights Act, Public Accommodations, the Voting Rights Act, not to mention the War on Poverty were the result of this immensely flawed man coming to a personal realization that his path to here was not the correct path forward.

So we come to the modern example of Virginia’s Governor. Anyone in 1984 who did not recognize the KKK and blackface were symbols that many Americans found abhorrent must have been living under a rock or just didn’t care. This was after the death of MLK,Jr., the riots, Black Power, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights. Almost three decades had passed since Supreme Court had ruled on the “separate but equal “doctrine. Over two decades had passed since the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Almost a decade and a half had passed since the assassination of MLK. And you still thought that KKK costumes and Blackface were funny?

That does not say people cannot change, because they can. Ignorance is often born from lack of education or experiences. Clearly this was all right with not only the editors and publishers of the yearbook, but was also OK with his Medical School, and classmates who allowed such garbage to be printed on their behalf. Nobody said a mumbling word even after they saw he might be elevated to the Governorship of the Commonwealth. They were proud that one of their own could be elevated. They should have been embarrassed.

While we can change, our past is our past. We cannot run from it or ignore it. Our best bet is to embrace it. We can come into knowledge or experiences that change the way we do things or the way we act. That does not mean that what we did before is forgotten. Forgiven maybe, but not forgotten. The best we can do is live our lives with this new found understanding. If we are truly changed that has to be enough. What you do in darkness will always come to the light.

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