The Content of our Character and the Seeds of Hope

Tim Castner, Contributor - History Teacher

2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’ s death — gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis hotel during protests for a living wage for sanitation workers. King was born eighty-nine years ago as the United States rode high on a wave of prosperity and economic expansion. New technologies such as radio had redefined entertainment and culture, and the automobile was redesigning the American landscape. The good times, though, were not shared equally with the African American community, still suffering under the thumb of Jim Crow. Global war and the country’s worst economic decline in history, the bust after the boom, shaped King’s growing up years. He studied sociology at Morehouse College before pursuing graduate studies in divinity at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University. The threat of nuclear annihilation and the global struggle for influence with the Soviet Union formed the backdrop of his adult years and the Civil Rights Movement. After receiving his PhD in 1955, King soon catapulted to national prominence as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott protests.

Today, Nashoba students face equally uncertain times. Smart phones and the internet promise greater community and interconnectedness but often lead to isolation, anxiety and depression, magnifying only the extreme voices. Many are struggling still to recover from the Great Recession. Concerns about costs of higher education, environmental challenges, terrorism, and nuclear war remain ever-present threats. A false alarm in Hawaii was an unwelcome reminder that we are a political and military miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation. As Nashoba students prepare to leave high school and step into an uncertain future, what values, lessons, and relationships will accompany them?

In his final Easter Sunday sermon on March 31, 1968, King argued that,

“We are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood. . .

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood, and yet, we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”(1)

If King is correct, the fundamental unity of humankind is far more important than any surface disunity. Indeed, the diversity of our relationships contributes to the richness of our lives, and we would be wise to ponder his legacy and insight for a troubled world.

Martin Luther King weekend reminded me of a former Nashoba student that I had the honor to know. Daniel grew up in an orphanage in Haiti, yet despite the challenges of life there, he described it as a wonderful childhood. He understood that a positive attitude and faith can help people overcome adversity. After Haiti was struck by a horrific earthquake on January 11 of 2010, Daniel had the opportunity, through Hope for the Children of Haiti, to move to the United States and be adopted by an American family. Staying first with a family in Stow, he struggled to learn English but quickly became popular at the school with his infectious optimism and enthusiasm for soccer. His smile always lit up the hallways, and even after an accident that confined him to a wheelchair for a while, his positive spirit remained. Eventually, Dan was adopted by the Mullane family in Bolton and graduated from Nashoba in 2013 after being inducted into the National Honor Society. Both the school community and the Mullane family were greatly enriched by his presence here. (2)

Jean-Luc Charles, a friend of my wife from Amherst College, similarly comes to mind as someone whose presence enriches lives. He shares Daniel’s bright smile and infectious optimism, though he grew up in Stamford, Connecticut in a Haitian immigrant community where his father was the pastor of the Haitian Church. Jean-Luc was the class speaker at Amherst where he inspired and impressed graduates and their families with his moving oratory. Since his graduation from Amherst, he has studied at Duke Divinity School and Harvard University and worked in a variety of fields before returning to Stamford to help pastor his father’s church. He recently started a website,, to support his work as a leadership consultant. On the site he describes his recipe for leadership:  

“Leadership is about taking responsibility, exercising authority and using yourself as an instrument of power. . . To be effective, you have to be a willing learner. You have to expose your assumptions to opposing viewpoints; you have to be willing to learn from unlikely sources. You have to be ok with being uncertain, with being wrong, with being exposed. But nobody will be moved by your mastery of ideas alone. To move others, you have to share your heart. This is where your values meet other people’s realities…”

Jean-Luc’s leadership lessons and the work of Dr. King, and that of other Civil Rights pioneers such as Ella Baker, A. Philip Randolph, and Fannie Lou Hamer, reveals that true leadership begins with listening and focuses on service. According to Nashoba’s Mission Statement, our “communication” must be honest and respectful and guided by acceptance and open-mindedness to be effective. Likewise, we must “relate” as “local and global citizen[s], practicing empathy and compassion, finding common ground and appreciating differences.” (3). A zero-sum game of lifting-up one group by tearing down another is only a recipe for disaster.

For the past two summers I have had the privilege to meet and work with refugee and immigrant farmers at Flats Mentor Farm in Lancaster. Despite the incredible hardship that many of them have faced, they remain resilient, optimistic, and generous. Sangiwa Eliamani comes from Tanzania and works diligently and with good humor in his fields and in his high tunnel. He has given generously of his time and expertise to our student interns and hopes someday to return to Tanzania.

Fabiola Nizigiyimana escaped the genocide in Berundi and spent ten years in a refugee camp before settling in Massachusetts. She holds down two jobs, raises her kids and was honored by President Obama at the White House as a champion of change. She, likewise, exudes gratefulness and strength, and she enjoys the opportunities her new country provides and shares her lessons and compassion with others.

Veronicah Nyaigoti arrived from Kenya and has been part of multiple generations working at Flats Mentor Farm and World Farmers. She was instrumental in introducing the 

spider plant at the farm and developing new markets for the farmers. Veronicah serves as a board member for World Farmers and has come to Nashoba with her daughter, Immaculate, to demonstrate how to prepare traditional African dishes (4).

Working with Nashoba students and staff at the flats over the past two summers I have been struck by how much more we have benefitted from our relationship with the farmers than they have benefitted from us. Their hope, resilience, tremendous work ethic, and compassion have inspired us to work harder, seek justice, and find ways to contribute to more vibrant and healthful communities. These experiences remind us of the truth and beauty of King’s dream that one day his, “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Seventy-five years before Dr. King’s birth, a local hermit and mystic ascended the podium at a fourth of July abolitionist rally in Framingham, Massachusetts. What thoughts went through his mind as he watched the opening speaker, William Lloyd Garrison, burn a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law and the US Constitution? Did his mind wander to his soon to be released book that would cement his place in the American Literary pantheon? As the former slave and women’s rights activist, Sojourner Truth, addressed the crowd, did he think back to the recent passage of the Kansas Nebraska act expanding the amount of land in the west that would be open to slavery, or remember the recent outrage in Boston as heavily armed federal marshals returned the escaped slave Anthony Burns to the south? When Henry David Thoreau rose as the final speaker, he literally stood on the ashes of the burned constitution. What shocked him the most was not the threatened expansion of slavery into Nebraska but the meekness with which fellow townspeople and other leaders and citizens of Massachusetts gave in to the slave-power. As Thoreau concluded, he pondered the consolation of nature in a depraved time.

“I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them: when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle?”

Yet, even in his despair Thoreau found reason for a deeper hope:

“But it chanced the other day that I secured a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I 

shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds may smell as sweet.”

That deeper hope provided the pattern for the proper human response. In an early suggestion of biomimicry, nature showed the way toward a redeemed humanity.

“So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.”

Perhaps that is the greatest lesson that we can draw upon from Martin Luther King weekend. King loved to paraphrase the Massachusetts abolitionist, Theodore Parker, “The arc of a moral Universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” If King and Parker are correct about the direction, the path is not smooth. The path is more like a mountain trail than a highway. It contains switchbacks, false summits, and deep valleys. Progress happens in fits and starts and requires the most effort when times seem darkest. Peace, justice, and equality are choices and destinations to which each generation needs to recommit. Let us all take the example of King’s life, work, and service to rediscover King’s vision of a beloved community.  Then, together we will continue walking the path of his dream toward opportunity, compassion, justice, peace, and unity.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution James M. Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) 269.
  2. Julia Quinn-Szcesuil, Haitian Boy finds Family in Bolton Wicked, published June 19,2012. Accessed January 12, 2018  <>
  3. Nashoba Regional High School Mission Statement.
  4. Additional information about World Farmers, their programs and farmers can be found at their website,