Profile in Courage
Charles Longstreet Weltner was a friend. He was a lawyer, a politician, a pursuer of knowledge until the day he died.
And he was a man of courage.
I think of him often, just as I often remember the things he taught us by example.
Charles was a descendant of Lt. General James Longstreet, who served in the Confederate Army high command and was known as Robert E.Lee's "Old War Horse." He was the son of a university president. And he was a brilliant student, who had one college degree by the time he was 20. And then he was off to law school.
He was a successful lawyer in Atlanta, but he had an itch for public service, and so he took on a challenge that no one believed he could win. He announced he would run for Congress against a 16-year veteran who had built a seemingly impregnable base among the segregation-now, segregation-forever crowd.
But Charles did it. He ran a retail campaign, meeting with as few as six or seven voters over coffee in someone's living room or going door to door in neighborhoods across the district. He won. And he went to Congress where, when the time came, he stood up and became one of, if the not the first, Deep South congressman to vote for the Civil Rights Act.
But then in his second term, he was faced with a decision that would mark his life forever. Lester Maddox, the axe-handle swinging segregationist, won the Democratic primary for governor and would be on the November ballot. And in those days, all Democratic candidates took an oath that they would support all of the party's candidates.
Charles couldn't support Maddox, who stood for almost everything he was against. It would be easy to just remain silent. He surely would win again. But Charles couldn't do that. He had taken that oath, he had given his word.
So he did the only thing he felt he could do, He resigned from Congress and announced he would not run again. Most people could not understand why he did this. None of his supporters would hold it against him if broke that stupid oath.
But Charles would hold it against himself.
So he went back to practicing law and later became a Georgia Supreme Court Justice, a post he held when he died a relatively young man.
There are different kinds of courage. Most think of it in a physical sense, but true leadership often demands courage in an intellectual and moral sense, the kind of courage that will allow you to change directions when necessary, allow you to walk away when you cannot violate your core values and principles.
It is the kind of courage that will allow you to know that you do not always have to be in front, that you do not always have to receive the recognition for what your team does. The courage to realize that you will fail from time to time, but that you will not be frozen in fear over those failures and that you will keep pursuing your goals.
Charles Weltner's actions were a profile in courage and every time I walk past his picture that hangs on a wall in our home, I stop and say thanks for the lessons he taught us. And for being a friend.