By the Content of Her Character

January 15, 2024

I have a dream that my 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.  – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was my first hero. His prophetic, soaring oratory, deeply rooted in the truth of God’s word, has had greater influence on my thinking about race relations in America, my own place in America, my leadership, and the relationship between my Christian faith and justice than any other person. So, for me, the MLK holiday continues to have great personal and professional significance.

In some ways, I have lived Dr. King’s dream all my life. Never once have I wondered whether I would be prevented from registering to vote or voting. Not once have I wondered whether I would be refused admission to a school, college or university based on my race. Never have I even contemplated whether a public accommodation would be closed to me based on my race. In other ways, as a sign of our nation’s progress, I see and enjoy aspects of Dr. King’s dream today that were less common or not yet realized during my childhood. As a native New Orleanian, I remember the controversial desegregation of Mardi Gras krewes in the early 1990s. A nationally visible sign of progress, there are today or have been African American leaders at every level of American society from CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations and university presidents to mayors and governors, cabinet secretaries, U.S. Senators, and the President of the United States.

I live Dr. King’s dream in deeply personal ways as well. I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at universities that once did not admit Black students. I was hired, promoted and tenured and led at universities that did not always employ Black faculty. I was honored to lead the public education system of a state where racial segregation in schools was legally enforced and school desegregation was resisted. I am the proud great-great grandson of slaves and the son of parents who experienced the Jim Crow south. Yet I have been blessed to serve, learn from, live with, lead, deeply love and be loved by people of various races and ethnicities. Only in the America that Dr. King dreamed about is such a story – my story – possible.

Still, our work is not complete. Educational inequality in America continues to be a place of great need. Even in 2024, in many states, few African American students read and perform mathematics at their grade level on state assessments. We can do so much more to provide educational opportunity for children at the margins, yet we often choose not to. If we are to ever fully realize Dr. King’s dream, every American child, regardless of race and economic background, must be afforded the opportunity to have a high-quality education. Educational opportunity and progress are essential to economic progress and economic freedom in America.

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment,” I remain hopeful. God continues to bless America, and, as a nation, we can continue the work of making our union more perfect. As Monica and I celebrate this King holiday with Whitley, we will do so with thanksgiving and hope. We will remind Whitley of Dr. King and so many other men and women, named and unnamed, who came before her and sacrificed so much for her to live in an America where she would “not be judged by the color of [her] skin, but by the content of [her] character.”

Houghton President Wayne Lewis's daughter sitting next to a large stone carved Martin Luther King Jr. statue.
Whitley sitting in front of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

And we will challenge her to follow in his footsteps; living a life that honors God by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with her God (Micah 6:8).


Finally, in this season of my life, the students I am privileged to serve at Houghton University give me unbridled hope for our future. I see the future through their eyes and their hearts, and they inspire me to be hopeful and excited about the communities they will build, lead and pass on to their children. By the grace of God, we shall continue to overcome.

President Wayne D. Lewis Jr.

About the Author

With 20 years of experience in education, higher education leadership is a calling for Wayne D. Lewis, Jr., President of Houghton University. He is recognized as being a champion for students; focusing on improving educational access, opportunities and experiences for students, including those who have historically been underserved.

Read More about President Lewis