Monthly Archives: May 2007

A Shrimp and a Nightingale

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“A Speech that Made Abolition History” by Mr. Coles appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 12, 2007. “It is rare indeed that a single piece of oratory can spark not just a change in the law, but also a tidal shift in global opinion,” the article begins. It is about the speech that William Wilberforce gave on May 12, 1789 to Britain’s House of Commons against slavery. Wilberforce was elected to Parliament when he was barely 21. He was short and snub-nosed and was once described as a “shrimp,” and yet his oratory skills made him to be known as the “Nightingale of the Commons.”

He was not the one to have speech writers write his piece for him. Oh! No. He had too much to say. He had guts, passion, courage, and conviction. “When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House – a subject in which the interests not just of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world and of posterity are involved … it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task.. the end of which is the total abolition of the slave trade.” Of course, Wilberforce was threatened and attacked for his views and plenty of disgrace was brought upon him. Yet he persisted. He had to wait for more than 26 years before the tide turned on July 26, 1833. He died three days later. His life’s mission was fulfilled.

Today, it is quite unthinkable for many of us to even consider fighting for our convictions. The risks are great and the attacks are vicious. But when we choose to do so, we can rest assured that we are in the company of giants who may look like shrimps.

Courage to Do the Right Thing

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We are told from a young age to do the right thing. Yet doing the right thing is the hardest thing to do. Doing the right thing can have negative consequences. You can be punished, penalized, and destroyed because the status quo is sometimes affected when you do the right thing. People like status quo. It makes them feel safe. It makes them feel invincible. It makes them feel powerful.

Yet, the greatest movements in the world and the most dramatic change in socieity have always been brought about by those who believed that what they stand for is much bigger than what they may lose by doing the right thing.

I think a lot about Mahatma Gandhi these days. I saw the movie a couple of years ago and was moved to tears by his courage, strength, and determination. In his simple mind and in his own simplistic way, he saw something that was terribly wrong and decided to do what was right. Many thought he was an idiot to think he could change the world – yet he did.

I could not imagine what it must have been like to take on an entrenched and sophisticated British system. Yet he did: in his own, quiet, persistent, courageous way. He just wanted to right a wrong. He simply wanted the world to know that the number of people who have been wronged or the length of time for which the wrong has been perpetuated does not make it right. Yeah, this has gone on for a long time – is not a reason to continue to perpetuate a wrong.

Life throws so many unexpected curves at us. Thank God for these curves. The curves and the slippery slopes are platforms for doing the right thing.