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A Measure of Leadership

By Marian Wright Edelman

Founder and President Emerita

As some members of Congress showed they were willing to bring the federal government to the brink of a shutdown, with demands that include deep cuts to services children and families rely on, once again some people have accused them of acting like children. Yet even five-year-olds understand that quitting the game and taking the ball home if the other players won’t give you your way is wrong. Refusing to fund the federal government is far from a political game, but a real threat that harms real workers, families, and citizens across the country.

In “Our God Is Marching On!,” his speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. urged us to “march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” Some of the men and women in Congress right now are failing this test. This is not the leadership we or our children deserve.

How I wish some political leaders did not treat children as just another special interest group who must get in line to make their case for why their health, safety, and education needs should be met. Is this the best we have to pass on to our children and grandchildren? Dr. King also urged us to march on ballot boxes until God’s children are able to walk the earth in decency and honor. For that to happen, as he taught us, we need a revolution in values. Fifty-five years ago, another political leader, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, said this to students at the University of Kansas about the need to rethink how we measure American success:

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product . . . if we should judge America by that—counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.”

Senator Kennedy continued: “Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

At the end of that speech, Senator Kennedy paraphrased George Bernard Shaw with words that became synonymous with his Presidential campaign and his vision for leadership: “Some people see things as they are and say, ‘why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘why not?’” Senator Kennedy’s own political leadership was cut far too short. But the dream of a nation that measures its success in the health of our children, the quality of their education, and the joy of their play is still here. So is the need for leaders who share it.

2023-09-29T15:28:51-05:00September 29th, 2023|