My Father’s Advice: ‘Don’t Hate, Don’t Hide, Don’t Be a Victim’

Someone burned a cross in our neighbors’ yard. My sister and I were taught to carry on living.

By Jonathan Harmon

June 12, 2020 2:43 pm ET

 

Mr. Harmon’s parents in their backyard in the 1980s.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF JONATHAN HARMON

When I was 14, someone burned a cross on the lawn of the house across the street. It was September 1979, and we lived in overwhelmingly white Port Jefferson, N.Y. The targets, the Andersons, were the only other black family in our neighborhood. Ken Anderson, an Army veteran, led the local NAACP. I later learned it was the fifth cross burning on Long Island that summer.

Hate welled up inside me as my parents told me what had happened. I wanted to retaliate against the perpetrator. But then my father taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Unlike many African-American men in this country, I was blessed to grow up in a stable home with a mother and father who loved me and each other. After the cross burning, my father, a teacher, didn’t give in to anger or hatred. He simply went about his life. He chose not to run, he chose not to change his routines, he chose not to speak out, and he chose not to shame or shun the cross burner—he had a strong hunch who it was—and even welcomed the hater into our home as before.

His quiet steadiness wasn’t cowardice. My parents were active members of the NAACP. My father marched with Martin Luther King Jr. But his dignified and resolute response was not to allow himself or his family to be taken down by bigotry. His message to my sister and me was simple: Don’t hate. Don’t hide. Don’t be a victim.

“Don’t hate” drew on Dr. King’s message: “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” My father embraced the teaching that love is the only antidote to hate.

“Don’t hide” means don’t be afraid, don’t retreat from life. I could see where the cross was burned from my bedroom window, and I had to stand by it in the morning when I waited for the school bus. But there was no talk of leaving our home or our community, no thought of sending my sister and me to live with friends or relatives until the threat passed. I was the only black kid riding the bus, but there was no mention of police escorts, alternative rides or changing schools. My father wouldn’t even drive me to school. His message was that we don’t dignify such a lowly act. We don’t let it worm its way inside us and transform us from humans to haters. We would soldier on and pursue a positive path to overcome prejudice. I got on the bus.

“Don’t be a victim” arose from the same impulse. Not surprisingly, reporters approached our home seeking comment. They asked my parents to go on TV. But my father didn’t want ugly vandalism to lower our esteem by turning us into bitter victims. He didn’t want our family to become famous for being the object of hatred.

In the 40 years since, I have experienced inequality and discrimination at many levels. That includes being pulled over unjustifiably by the police, wrongfully accused of stealing and denied opportunity to purchase property for a home.

After high school, I went to West Point (Class of ’87), and fought in an armored combat division during Operation Desert Storm. That experience gave me empathy for those in uniform—police or military—sworn to serve and protect. I understand some of the pressures facing officers in the field of engagement.

My experience at West Point and in the military taught me that it is a privilege to lead. A leader has a responsibility to exercise authority with compassion, respect, magnanimity and humility. When leadership turns to arrogance, bad outcomes are almost sure to follow. Think of the police officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck and exerted enough pressure to choke off his life.

After the military, I went to law school. Today I’m a trial lawyer and chairman of an international law firm and consultancy, leading professionals of diverse backgrounds and political affiliations—among them former prosecutors and attorneys who devote considerable time to civil-rights matters. My wife, also a West Point graduate, worked as a civil-rights lawyer.

Recent events have me thinking again about my father’s lessons. How should I, as an African-American business leader—and, more important, as a father—talk about hate?

I have four children, ages 16 to 23. All are home as a consequence of the pandemic. Our dinner discussions have been spirited. Will the same messages my father shared resonate with my kids and the younger lawyers in the firm? In a world freshly aware of the brutality of institutionalized racism, are my father’s words—don’t hate, don’t hide, don’t be a victim—still sage advice?

My oldest son, who has been pulled over by the police five times for unknown reasons, is eager to be on the front lines with the demonstrators, tasting the tear gas and risking arrest. He feels something like what I felt when I first saw the Andersons’ yard. His younger sister has an attitude most like mine. She’s deeply concerned about injustice but remains positive about America’s ability to heal itself. My other children are in between.

It’s a different world—yet it isn’t. When I look back at that cross seared into the lawn across the street, I see the important—and positive—role it played in my development, my sense of self, and my commitment to work for change. It’s one of the reasons I’ve spent the past 20 years teaching Bible studies with inmates, from juveniles to hardened felons, in state and federal prisons. It’s never too late to learn not to hate.

I also acknowledge the frustration Americans feel, knowing that more than a half-century after the assassination of Dr. King, we’re still witnessing injustices like those rendered on Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, on Michael Brown and a prayer group at a Charleston church, and, now, on Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Can we as a nation quell these unrelenting flames?

 

I believe we can. Like my father, we can check our instinct to react and take action to make this a teaching moment. And then maybe, just maybe, we can learn not to hate.

Mr. Harmon is a trial lawyer and chairman of the firm McGuireWoods.