Everyone who knows me, knows I am constantly on the go. Such was the case this morning, when I accompanied my personal hero and mentor, civil rights icon Ambassador Andrew Young to the airport — he headed to Africa, and me simply to San Francisco (for a Global Dignity Day session with Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums no less). As I was getting out of the car I stopped to share a couple closing thoughts with Ambassador Young, as he was departing from a separate location. Now, let me stop here and say that while the customer drop-off area was not very congested at all this morning, I was indeed wrong for stopping and having even a short conversation while in that area of the Atlanta Airport. Okay, now the substance of my challenge begins.
As I am wrapping up my discussion with Ambassador Young, who is still seated in the passenger seat of his vehicle, I hear a blaring horn behind us. Now, we are sitting in park, curbside, and there is plenty of space behind and in front of us. I turn to observe where the noise was coming from, and why, and a man exits his vehicle (directly behind ours) and waves me off, yelling to me at the top of his lungs to "move my car." Not feeling this as dignified or even justified, I asked him to simply go around if we were somehow in his way (he had yet to drop off his wife and child who were it appears traveling). With this, he just lost it. He exited his automobile again and yelled "you just need to move your black …." Okay now…
I have not been tested like this in some time, and in fact, I don't recall ever being called either the N word (to my face), or hearing the word "black" associated with a part of the physical body. It was at this point that things could have, well escalated. I have come a long, long way, and yes, I authored LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way in a Fear-Based World, but I am also a human being alive with a sense of justice, right and wrong, and if I have left this off — I grew up in Compton, California, and South Central Los Angeles. The suit and good manners should not fool anyone. Luckily, I was fully present in the moment, and even though this man was at times 4 inches from my face and pacing around me, as if to say, "do it," I could see myself smiling gently, standing relaxed, and only wondering how absolutely crazy (and sad) this man must be today.
Amazingly, the man (and yes, he happened to be Caucasian, but this is secondary to every other fact here, as individuals from every race can show their worst side, just like this) then threatened to go and "get the police." Wow, I thought. "Sure," I told him, be my guest. With that, I returned to the passenger side of Ambassador Young's automobile, apologized that he had to hear or witness any of this (the man never knew there was an icon of Young's stature sitting 10 feet from him, although I am not totally sure it would have mattered to him), and asked our driver and friend Webster Pringle to go ahead and get my hero out of there and on to his gate escort. With that, I decided to actually help this wonderful human being-in-hiding. I walked across the four lane drive and approached two officers (who happened to also be African-American by chance. Boy, God has a sense of humor), explained the situation, and invited them to meet the gentleman-in-rage.
As the officer and I approached, the hapless man launched into his endless complaints about my supposed law-breaking ways. I gently interrupted, admitting that I had in fact spoken to someone for a minute too long, and asked him to remind me and the officer of his exact approach to me ("black …" comments, and all). To my amazement, he absolutely confessed to all of it, saying "I only said that once you talked back to me." Wow, wow, wow…is all I could say. With that, the officer suggested that I leave.
As I turned to walk away the man got in my face one more time, yelling again, and yes, threatening, even daring me. With this, I turned and asked, "are you having a rotten day sir? Did you wake up angry at the world? And do you realize that you are saying all of this, in front of your young 2-year old child? You realize, you are traumatizing him, don't you?" His wife looked so miserable, and embarrassed. I felt bad, for her, but happy she was now traveling alone with baby.
With that, I turned and walked away, with individuals who had been watching from the sidelines thanking me, oddly enough. One airport employee, once I was inside, thanked me for "doing something, and not letting him (the man) get away with that." Well, in reality I did very little, and I certainly did almost nothing I felt in my emotions of the moment. I actually, held myself back on countless fronts.
But this too is an example of Love Leadership, and a little dignity extended to. Love is work (it is not easy), and often times we must extend dignity to those who don't deserve, in that instant, as much as the energy involved. The reality though, is that in these situations you win even when you lose.
You win, by not even engaging the ridiculous competition for who can stoop the lowest. As my pastor and spiritual father, Reverend Dr Cecil "Chip" Murray once told me, "John, it is not what people call you, but what you answer to that's important. Never answer out of your name."
This man was just about hitting his face against my fist, and I had to protect him from even that. He only made himself look bad, and I maintained that gentle smile throughout.
And yes, it was hard for me to simply walk away — but I did. Breath….breath. That's what love is my friends. Love, is work.
On to the HOPE Financial Forum in Oakland, with my friends Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and Martin King, III. I hope that I did Ambassador Young and the King legacy proud today. It represented not even one once of the inconvenience they endured during the civil rights movement, but it gave me even more respect for what they did, and more so, how they did it.
Love Leadership — the new way to lead, in a fear-based world.
Onward with HOPE
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, bestselling author ofLOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), a member of the Forum of Young Global Leaders with the World Economic Forum, and a member of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Capabilities.