Guest Editorial: Be the Best You Can Be

A few weeks ago, I got a call from one of my white brothers who wanted to share with me a story that he had read in a history book. It was a story involving former President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The story goes that in 1943, Roosevelt was putting together a group of Naval officer pilots in an officer pilot program. His wife, Eleanor, pushed him to add some black pilots to the group.

So, the Navy trained 16 college educated black trainees as well. The black trainees were given eight weeks to train because the Navy officials said time was short, even though the black trainees’ white counterparts had 16 weeks to train.

When the black trainees found out about this opportunity, they covered their windows in their barracks and stayed up all night studying.

They scored in the 90th percentile on the test.

The Navy officials said something to the effect of, “No way. They cheated.” The black trainees were then separated, put in separate rooms and tested individually.

They scored in the 93rd percentile.

The black trainees were eventually commissioned. Their scores are still the highest scores ever attained in that school.

In discussing the history of this county and the journey of the African-American, my white brother found this story to be exceptional.

I shared with him why instances like this happened often involving the African-American communities. Because of unfortunate laws that were in place during that era, the same opportunities were not equally available to all people in this country.

As young blacks, we were taught by our elders that if we wanted a job, and wanted to be successful, we had to be exceptional. Even being exceptional sometimes may not work, but be prepared no matter what the job.

This is why there are so many great African-Americans in this country in all areas of our society.

We wanted so badly to contribute to this great democracy and share in the fruits of our shared labor to help make this country the greatest nation on this earth for all people.

I also shared with my white brother, that one of the reasons this country sees such a large number of black professional athletes in football, basketball, track and field, and (at one time) baseball, is because we took that mantra to heart – to be the best, whatever you choose – because that was one of the ways blacks could attain wealth and prosperity for our families.

Once the door was opened, we rushed through it, knowing that we had to be one of the best in order to take advantage of these limited opportunities.

This not only happened in the sports world, but in all professions.

Music: Can you imagine what this country would be like without the contributions of African-Americans in all genres – including Charlie Pride, Ella Fitzgerald, Leotyne Price, Michael Jackson and Chuck Berry, to name a few.

Dance: Alvin Ailey, The Hines Brothers, Michael Jackson, and Misty Copeland

Tennis: Arthur Ashe, Venus and Serena Williams

Track and Field: The Great Jesse Owens, Florence Griffith Joyner, and Carl Lewis

Medicine: Vivien T. Thomas who pioneered research in Cardiovascular Surgery and others

Science: George Washington Carver and what he did with the peanut

These are only a few. And there were many others in other professions like business and politics.

When I was a young man growing up in Columbia in a three-room house with 12 other kids, I knew that this was not how I wanted to live the rest of my life – in poverty.

So, like many other young African-American kids, I listened to Dr. Martin Luther King quoting the words of Douglas Malloch, “For it isn’t by size that you win or fail; be the best of whatever you are.”

Be the best of whatever you are.

I made plans to be the best I could be at my job. It started with getting a quality education.

I admit that being a professional basketball player wasn’t my first choice. My first choice was to be an astronaut. That didn’t work out for me.

My second choice was to be a defensive end in football. But after my first practice and getting swept away when they swept my end, I changed my mind.

I decided to write books of poetry. Got that done. And I wanted to try acting. Did that, too. I was a Renaissance man.

But I felt there were lots of other possibilities, and I didn’t want to be limited in my aspirations.

I finally settled on the thing I enjoyed most that allowed me freedom of expression. That was dancing on the basketball court.

Through determination, belief, the will of God, and my grandmother’s and others’ love, I became who I am.

I would like to share the words of a song that defines what this country should be about.

“O beautiful for spacious skies,
for amber waves of grain;
for purple mountain majesties
above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace
on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.”

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