Oh, if only we could erase the mistakes of our youth. But no, as “ Omar Khayyam warned us –
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
So, now Virginia Governor Ralph Northam takes the fall for the horrible picture in his Yearbook and his racist “nickname,” seen later. And who can say that he doesn’t deserve it?
The times have changed – unquestionable for the better – and those who would cling to a dark past deserve no sympathy.
But who is Northam today? The man who liked the horrible picture and racist nickname? Or the Governor who by most accounts has been a good friend to civil rights for all and rights for women?
I don’t know but I do know of cases where when people age they change. For the better. Allow me to cite just four examples, two I witnessed personally, the other two which are said to be true.
Lyndon Baines Johnson spent twenty three years in the United States Congress, first in the House, then in the Senate. In all that time he voted against every civil rights bill that came before him. Every one including anti-lynching measures. Was he just bowing to political expediency In the Southern state of Texas. Or was that his heart then?
I don’t know.
We do know that once he became President, Johnson forced through the great Civil Rights Act of 1964, which freed black people from lawful segregation and injustice in public accommodations and housing and much else. He pushed through the Voting Rights Act which expanded the ability of black people and others to participate meaningfully in elections. He elevated the first black person to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. He worked to see Medicare and Medicaid enacted and began a War on Poverty which, if his mistake of expanding the Vietnam war had not brought him low might have freed countless millions from a life of poverty.
Lyndon Johnson was the best civil rights president the United States has had since Abraham Lincoln. His votes on the other side before his presidency?
If not forgotten long since forgiven.
Then there was George Corley Wallace, Jr, the one time arch-segregationist Governor of Alabama. In his first race for the Gubernatorial nomination he was a “moderate” by Southern standards of the day and was beaten by a truly evil segregationist. Wallace said, “I got out-seged and I’ll never get out-seged again.”
So he won next time around and became the man standing in the schoolhouse door against Federal Integration force, the man who defiantly proclaimed “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Until black voting registration in Alabama swelled. At which point, Wallace ran for re-election as the friend of black people. They supported him enough for him to win against a segregationist opponent and he rewarded his black constituency with high offices in his Administration and policies for their benefit.
Was Wallace just a person who bends with the winds and stands for nothing certain or did he come to be a better person?
I don’t know but I do know that having had his State troopers rip the film from my cameraman’s shoulder in1968, because we had filmed him shaking hands with Robert Shelton who was then the Grand dragon of the main Southern Ku Klux Klan, Wallace in his wheelchair in 1996, at a gathering we were both attending sought me out to apologize and ask me to forgive him. He seemed sincere and I forgave him.
I never met John Newton, he was long before my time. But I have been to the church in Olney, England, where as Curate, Newton, a priest in the Anglican Church, wrote Hymns, including one known by it’s first words “Amazing Grace,” one of the most famous Hymns of all time.
Before he came to God fully, John Newton was the Captain of slave ships. He brought blacks from Africa to their bondage in the New World. He made a living for a time doing that before the injustice, the inhumanity of slavery gnawed at his soul.
But now, his days as a cruel Captain of slave ships no longer defines him
Now, we see John Newton through the words of his hymn “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.”
My fourth example was of someone I also never met. He lived so long ago and was for his early adult years the cruelest of all the examples I am citing.
His name was Saul, described thusly by a Bible student a few years ago:
“Saul became the worst enemy of Christians. He hunted them down and dragged them out of their homes, imprisoning them and even having them killed. In fact, Saul was a witness to the stoning of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. Because Saul was a leader, he stood by and watched as those stoning Stephen laid their cloaks at his feet. It’s very likely that Saul ordered Stephen to be stoned”
But one day as Saul walked the road to Damascus, a light shone upon him. He heard a voice from heaven that said: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?’ And Saul said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’
After some time of penance Saul was fully redeemed and took the name Paul, and, it is said:
“Paul spent the rest of his life traveling and spreading the Gospel of Jesus, establishing churches and teaching others to lead in his absence. Paul’s epistles to the churches that he established make up over one-fourth of the New Testament. He truly is the greatest missionary in Church history.”
St. Paul’s conversion is a dramatic and inspiring story and except in reciting the man’s background, who condemns Paul for once being Saul?
I have told these stories not to excuse Governor Northam. He must pay the price for his early folly; the community fairly demands it.
However, these stories do make the point that the important thing about life is how it ends. The important thing about a person’s heart is where it winds up.
Who among us wants to be known by the ancient contents of the closet we keep so strongly locked and not by the works we stand for today?