A few nights ago, I saw the film "Freedom Summer," a documentary by Stanley Nelson about 10 weeks in 1964 when more then 700 student volunteers from around the country went to Mississippi to try to shatter the foundations of white supremacy. At the conclusion of the film, one of the panelists who had been involved in the effort urged young people to "make some noise" to help dismantle the entrenched inequality that still exists in this country. While I believe young people need to raise their voices against present day inequality, I believe young and old need to raise their voices against those who have forgotten the price paid for our freedom and continue to engage in corrupt activities that undermine the cause of freedom.
We continue to witness the downfall of the African American politician elite. Those with the best education and the best connections and often from the best connected families continue to lose valuable political offices because of conviction of engaging in (or guilty pleas) corrupt behavior, behavior that often has been captured on tape or other electronic means. Among those who have squandered hard won rights are: Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.; former Mayor of Detroit Kwame Kilpatrick; former District of Columbia Councilman Michael Brown, son of former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown; former District of Columbia Councilman Harry Thomas, Jr., son of former Councilman Harry Thomas, Sr.; former District of Columbia Council Chair Kwame Brown; former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin; former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson (along with his wife).
When we voted for these people, we rightly expected that they would continue to ascend the political ladder and be powerful voices for the masses who are not so well educated or connected. Instead, we continue to witness the parade of horrors (consider the recent indictment of the Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina). To magnify the loss and the impact on African American, minority and poor communities, these fallen warriors (or at least expected warriors) are not being replaced by those who have shown much of an interest in continuing the struggle for freedom and fighting against the new Jim Crow.
All of the people mentioned above had two things in common. First, they forgot who they are and whose they are, and in the forgetting, sold themselves for thirty pieces of silver. They were greedy and focused on no one but themselves. Second, these corrupt "leaders" ignored certain foundational principles that at one time were a central part of the African American community (at least the community in which I was raised) and that the African American leaders of old followed with fidelity. How do we stop the cycle? We must redouble efforts to pass on the well-tested foundational principles to our young, so that they not only will make some noise, but they will operate with a well-equipped tool box that that will allow them to ascend the halls of power and to remain firmly perched, even when storms roll in, as they inevitably will. Here are nine principles that I believe will help plant anyone on a firm foundation.
1. Become familiar with moral and theological philosophies that predate modern rules of conduct and that in fact serve as the moral underpinning of our society. Moral standards, which often are based on religious foundations, leave less wiggle room about what is acceptable than do ethics codes, which have been drafted by lawyers and often have loopholes. The Book of Proverbs, one of the oldest codes of conduct, offers a wealth of guidance on how to operate ethically, dispensing advice on a wide range of topics, from honesty and integrity to the value in seeking counsel from others. The Book of Proverbs and similar codes of conduct in other religions (Judaism, Islam, and Taoism all have codes of conduct) offers sound guidance whether one is Christian, of another religion, or disclaims being "religious." Anyone who keeps the following principles in his tool box will be well on his way to leading a moral and ethical life. For example, Proverbs cautions that ill-gotten treasures are of no value, but practicing what is right always delivers one from an ignominious downfall (Proverbs 10:2); that the wages of the righteous bring them life, but the income of the wicked brings them punishment (Proverbs 10:16); and that the integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity (Proverbs 11:3). All of these Proverbs caution against the very kinds of activities that continue to ensnarl young African American politicians who should be moving up the political ladder.
2. Be knowledgeable about your organization's code of conduct. Although the book of Proverbs is the starting place for building an ethical foundation, whether you are a politician or are employed in the government, a corporation, or a non-profit, you should become familiar with and ardently follow your organization's code of conduct. Know what activities are prohibited. If the rules are unclear or if you disagree with them, speak with someone who can interpret them. In fact, if you are a senior executive with decision making authority, you should consider hiring an attorney to brief you on the detail of your governing codes as well as applicable laws that govern certain behavior.
3. Have a line that you will not cross when it comes to ethics. Before being confronted with an ethical dilemma, a thoughtful person will have given some thought to the things she will not do, regardless of the possible adverse consequences or who makes the request. The strongest moral decisions we make are ones we make before we are tempted. In his book, Street Smart Ethics: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul, Clinton W. McLemore calls these advance decisions "preemptory decisions," saying that an ethical person makes the decision one time - in advance of trouble.
4. Recognize that small or initial ethical compromises open the door to further compromises. Let your conscience be your guide; if something does not feel right, it probably is not. This means you also must make it a habit to do the right thing. Advice in 1951 by noted theologian and philosopher Dr. Howard Thurman in his book Deep is the Hunger is just as relevant today. He said: "We are living in the midst of events that [demand that we stand up and be counted. The options are often very few. . . . It might not be a bad idea to get in the practice now and develop the climate within [yourselves] that makes it possible for your to make up your mind to be counted." Making up your mind to be counted as an elected official means you make up your mind to do the right thing and to make decisions that benefit other than yourself.
5. Operate on a buddy system, and choose as a buddy someone who is not a "yes" person. Most people who want to do the right thing have confidants with whom they vet difficult issues. Develop such a relationship with people who have a reputation for doing the right thing. As Proverbs 28:23 cautions, the one who criticizes should in the end gain more favor than the one who offers empty praises. True leaders value honesty. (Proverbs 16:13). If someone who loves and respects you warns you against doing something, you should at least think critically about the planned action before doing it. If nations fall because of a lack of guidance, but succeed with advisers (Proverbs 11:14), so do people.
6. Have the ability to work independently as well as part of a team. This will help you to resist negative pressure. The ability to work independently comes from having confidence in one's own ability and in not needing the approval of others.
7. Do not use as a motto, "Everybody else is doing it." This approach is almost guaranteed to lead you to trouble. If you are certain of the foundation on which you stand, you will not be so concerned about what everybody else is doing.
8. Recognize that the temptation to engage in unethical conduct often sneaks up on you, especially if you do not have the proper ethical foundation. As noted philosopher C. S. Lewis said, such temptation often comes "over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man or woman, whom you recently have been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still. It will be the hint of something [that violates] the technical rules of fair play . . . something which the . . . ignorant, romantic public would never understand . . . but something, says your new friend, which 'we' and at the word 'we' you try not to blush for sheer pleasure - something 'we always do.'" C.S. Lewis, as quoted in Street Smart Ethics: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul, Clinton W. McLemore. Recognizing this should keep you in a questioning mode about certain proposed or planned conduct.
9. Remember, you can never win by engaging in unethical conduct. Proverbs 21:6 illuminates the folly of engaging in corrupt activities by reminding us that a fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare. The probabilities of being caught and punished are high. It is not a matter of if you will be caught; it often is a matter of when you will be caught and brought to justice.
Thus, in conclusion, while all of us need to keep fighting and remain engage in the political process to advance the cause of freedom, a part of that fight is to speak out against corruption, irrespective of who commits the corrupt act and to remind those elected to political office to make sure they carry the right tool box into office with them. When they do not, we must not hesitate to hold them accountable.