Three African American Leaders Who Changed My Life

This month is Black History Month across our nation. February is when we take time to remember and appreciate the African-Americans who’ve changed the course of our lives, including people like:

  • George Washington Carver
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Frederick Douglas
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Hiram Revels
  • Jesse Owens
  • Rosa Parks
  • Jackie Robinson

The names on this list are intentional. Each of these people shaped the way I live. I’d like you to walk down memory lane with me for a few minutes and peak behind the curtain at three other African-Americans who changed the way I think and act and lead. None of these three know how dynamically they molded me as a young man. The characteristics they modeled, however, are indelibly etched on my soul. I get emotional when I think about them. Below is a tribute to them.

Charlie Henry—Take the High Road

I was born in 1959. The first sixteen years of my life were spent in Indiana and Ohio. My family attended a church in Cincinnati that, like many churches, was almost totally white. Sunday morning was segregated. Our church had one black couple as members—Charlie and Mary Henry. I met Charlie when I was in elementary school. Early on, the only qualities I noticed were that his skin color was different than mine and that his demeanor was more gracious than mine, or anyone else for that matter.

Charlie was a minority in our community, but you’d never know it. Because this was the 1960s, many white folks didn’t know how to interact with him. But Charlie always smiled and responded to awkwardness with graciousness. He’d sponsor an annual barbecue, which was the best thing I’d ever tasted as a kid. He’d labor over that grill outside, while the rest of us licked our fingers, savoring those delicious ribs he’d prepared. (His ribs became our love language). All who met Charlie came to love African-Americans because he was such a gracious example of humanity. My dad recently reminded me how he and my mom would host the Henry’s at our house, and intentionally invite folks to join them who struggled with prejudice. (Today we call it racism.) In every case, our white friends were humbled by Charlie’s warm and generous style. He won them over. Charlie acted out of principle instead of reacting out of prejudice. In a world that was taking the “low road” Charlie always generously took the high road.

Shawn Mitchell—Invest in People

My first mentor, as a high school student, was a man named Shawn Mitchell. He took me under his wing and let me accompany him as he launched an outreach in San Diego, CA. As a leader, Shawn demonstrated passion and purposeful living, traits I adopted and have attempted to emulate up to this day. I so admired Shawn, I never remember even noticing our skin was a different color.

Every Friday night, Shawn and his team rented out an auditorium and showed a great movie; one that contained a clear and compelling truth or moral to it. Afterward, Shawn would hop up and speak to a crowd of teenagers and unpack the principle included in the film we’d just witnessed. Shawn was (and still is) a dynamic communicator. He put on a clinic for me on how to connect with students.

One Friday night, however, Shawn met me backstage and whispered to me that he couldn’t speak. Something was wrong with his throat; maybe laryngitis. I would have to speak that night. I was stunned. I was only a junior in high school—how could I speak to a crowd of peers? But, alas, Shawn nudged me to embrace my first public speaking opportunity. In fact, from that point on, he and I rotated speaking each week at that outreach. It wasn’t until years later I realized what Shawn had done. He confessed to me as an adult that he really didn’t have laryngitis years ago. It was just the only way he knew to step down and let a “green” kid—still wet behind the ears kid—step up and learn to communicate. Shawn valued investing in a young leader more than making sure the best speaker was up to perform. Investments are about the future.

Martin Luther King—Courage Costs You Something

Much has been written about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So allow me to reveal what I most appreciate about him. While his outward skills are obvious—as an orator, a leader and a facilitator of civil rights for minority races, I have been most impressed by his poise and courage in the midst of unknown territory. While I recognize he was not perfect, Dr. King never seemed to allow the threats on his life or his cause to intimidate him. Refusing to fight fire with fire, he knew that his convictions would cost him something. Perhaps this fact is best summarized in a statement he made just months before he was assassinated in 1968:

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death in the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You refused to stand up for justice.”

Thank you Charlie, Shawn and Martin for transforming my life.

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Three African American Leaders Who Changed My Life