Black Enterprise magazine published a column by McGuireWoods Chairman Jonathan Harmon about his family’s encounter with racism during his teens and the powerful lesson his father taught him about responding to hate. The July 27, 2020, article is headlined “Lessons From a Cross Burning: My Father Used a Hateful Act to Teach Me Not to Hate.”
The Black Enterprise piece is an expanded version of an op-ed first published June 12 by The Wall Street Journal. In it, Harmon describes how images of the recent killing of George Floyd “carry a force and a call to action that words cannot convey.”
“I know that urge to action, as well as the impulse to act out in anger,” wrote Harmon. When he was 14, a cross was burned into a neighbor’s lawn across from his family’s home in Port Jefferson, New York.
“I recall the hate that welled up inside me,” he wrote. “I wanted to take action against anyone who would do such a thing.”
His father, a junior high school social studies teacher, chose a different course, Harmon wrote. His response “was to not 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.”
“His message was that we do not dignify such a lowly act by letting it worm its way inside us and transform us from humans to haters,” Harmon explained. “We would soldier on and pursue a positive path to overcome prejudice.”
Harmon carried that lesson with him through his education at West Point, his combat service in Operation Desert Storm and his career at McGuireWoods. And it resonates today at a time as protesters take to the streets to demand social justice and racial equality.
“Like my father, we can check our instinct to react and take strong, positive action to make this a national teaching — a national learning — moment,” he wrote. “And then, maybe, just maybe, we can learn not to hate.”