It’s the content of our characters that defines our humanity, whether we are black or white, Democrats or Republicans, rich or poor.
That aspect of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was the focus for speakers at the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force’s annual celebration of the life of the civil rights leader Sunday night.
Southold residents filled the auditorium at Peconic Landing, as the sun set on a chilly afternoon, to remember Dr. King’s legacy and his hope that some day, we would all be judged, not on the color of our skin, but on the content of our character.
When Dr. King told the world of his dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, he spoke of letting freedom ring, from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire to every hill and molehill of Mississippi. Greenport School student Felipe Solis read that portion of Dr. King’s speech to the crowd at Peconic Landing Sunday night, ending with a bold shout of “Thank God Almighty We Are Free at Last!” which met with whoops of appreciation from the crowd.
But Dan Durett of Greenport, who was the keynote speaker at Sunday’s event, said there are many mountains left to climb before we will live in the world Dr. King imagined.
Mr. Durett, an environmentalist and educator who has worked with many federal agencies and who helped prepare the documentation for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Landmark in Atlanta, where Dr. King was born, began his speech by signaling out people in the audience. One, he said, he could tell was Irish. He asked another man who’d been speaking in Spanish if he was a U.S. Citizen. Attendees began squirming in their seats at this blatant example of bias, before Mr. Durett told the audience the people he was singling out had agreed to play along with him to make a point.
“Fear of the other and ignorance still separates us,” he said. “Bias takes many forms. Dr. King would say we have mountains left to climb. We’re all guilty of judging a book by its cover.”
Mr. Durett urged attendees to live by seven pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship and empathy.
“The content of our character matters the most,” he said. “Character is like a tree and reputation is its shadow … These are the final mountains we have yet to climb.”
Politicians in attendance echoed his sentiment. Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he believes the country needs to take Dr. King’s example of civility in public discourse.
He said he hopes that eloquence and insight define public debates, “not the cacophony of discord, disrespect and name calling.”
“We can debate issues and stand for things we believe in,” he said. “I hope in 2012 the nation focuses on dialogue.”
Greenport Mayor David Nyce said he wished Southold didn’t need to have an Anti-Bias Task Force.
“Every person wants to be judged by what they do and say, not by the color of their skin,” he said. “There isn’t a person in this room that hasn’t been judged. It’s incumbent on each person to rise above that.”