I may not live to see our glory
But I will gladly join the fight
and when our children tell our story
they’ll tell the story of tonight
Lin-Manuel Miranda; Hamilton: The Revolutionary
On June 11th, 1963 — nearly 54 years ago, and only a few months before his assassination — John F. Kennedy made one of the most important addresses to the American people of his short presidency. The man who studied Profiles in Courage of others was once again called upon to summon up his own.
He had brought us back from the brink of war with the Soviet Union over the Cuban Missile Crisis just seven months earlier. With hardly time enough to take a deep breath, he was now confronted with averting a war at home. Echoing the outright civil war fought 100 years before between the North and South, once again America was convulsed over its identity. On one side, the Civil Rights Movement was a growing call to arms to remedy once and for all the vestiges of America’s pre-existing condition: slavery. Our country’s original sin that five generations after its legal abolishment still continued to resist extinction. The other side was not about to relent.
The events of the day, when segregationist Governor George Wallace bodily blocked the admission of two black students to the University of Alabama, had forced a moment of truth. Attempting to make good on his now infamous proclamation, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” Governor Wallace had defied the students, a federal court order and US Army troops, while starkly revealing an intolerable truth: for African-Americans, America was not yet the dream it was meant to be. Where, as Langston Hughes described, “opportunity is real, and life is free, equality is in the air we breathe.”
George Wallace finally backed down. The troops pulled back. The students walked in. And on the surface all was calm again. Yet the moment had come, and could not be lost, to speak to that intolerable truth.
The now-famous civil rights speech was not a speech JFK had planned to give. In fact, it wasn’t yet finished when he gave it. Against the advice of his closest advisors (except his brother Robert) the President faced the TV camera that night and spoke to all Americans about the soul of America. He started with the events of the day, but quickly gathered his resolve and, in the context of that day and time, showed us what courage from a true leader looks and feels like. As if confessing on behalf of our nation in order to let the healing begin again, he said this:
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark…cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
He then left us with a call to action:
We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act…above all, in all of our daily lives.
Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.
That was then. What about today?
Monday, the day we celebrated Memorial Day and the courage of others committed to risking their lives for the welfare of others, was JFK’s 100th birthday. I used the occasion to visit his Presidential Library and Museum on the edge of Boston’s waterfront. I went seeking refuge from the nearly daily assault of men parading as leaders, like emperors with no clothes. The inspiration I sought, I also found. I was moved by the spirits of history that surrounded me, and found myself offering this observation to Jack: Today, my friend, we still confront the same moral issue with the same genesis, a crisis of our own making, and a dearth of voices speaking up, courageously.
I choose to express our challenge today the same way JFK did 54 years ago, as a moral issue, because it still goes to the heart of the matter. He took what was usually argued as a legal issue and, with courage, embraced it as moral crisis, a fundamental test of what is fair and equitable and expresses our dignity and character as a people.
In our day and age we conveniently segment our issues and concerns into similar boxes of the case for this or the case for that — usually ignoring the implicit moral values upon which those cases are made. So often we have the right answer to the wrong question because we don’t examine the moral implications of the question itself. And because we miss the heart of the matter, we see no need to change and, therefore, no need to be courageous.
What can we do today?
Find our courage. When our children tell our story, what do we want that story to convey?
Your act of courage will be different than mine and our stories different still. Courage is about taking a stand to change the course of events for some higher purpose. We don’t have to give up our lives to be courageous, but we do have to take a risk, step outside our established habits of thought and action. We have to bet against the odds. Many times we have to take our place in completing a larger puzzle when all the pieces are not known or even yet to be made.
Look into your daily lives on a daily basis to find opportunities to practice small acts of courage. They will lead to bigger ones. And others will join you. Together you will act more boldly addressing our intolerable truth. So when our children tell our stories of how we faced our nation’s moral crisis, they will have many from which to choose.
Reinventure Capital is an act of courage for Julianne and me. Daily we make the case that inequity in the allocation of risk capital is alive and well. Daily we make the case that financial opportunity abounds for those willing to address this inefficient and destructive asymmetry. Daily we make the case that marrying non-concessionary returns and intentional impact can be done and has been done.* And daily we do so knowing that at the heart of what we do there is a moral challenge we are answering.
Join us. Drop us a note; we’d love to hear from you.
* While there’s no such thing as a guarantee in investing and no one can reliably predict the future, Ed’s record at UNC Ventures provides direct evidence that it is indeed possible to consistently invest for both financial returns and social value creation. To learn more, please contact us.