Looking at Life Through Another's Eyes

Sociologist and educator Charles S. Johnson

Sociologist and educator Charles S. Johnson was the first black president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Born in Virginia, Johnson served in the Army during World War I and worked for Presidents Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. hide caption

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This essay aired circa 1951. My father's father was a slave and my father was a devoutly religious Baptist minister. He had both the will and a way of translating his religious convictions into useful and pioneering social action. Religion is most real to those who feel the need for comfort and refuge beyond the gift of man. There is a transporting beauty welling up from deep flowing rivers of sorrow, which touches the buried springs of all human life in the religious expression of the slave and the newly free.

I'm certain that man is made both good and bad by his institutions. These institutions are responsible for the shaping of our personalities, our morals and the patterns of our social relations. The reshaping of our institutions, guided by the highest ideals of religious conviction, is our responsibility. This explains why, in the logic of my life, I can take an unequivocal point of view regarding inequalities. It is my belief that while there are inequalities in personal gifts, there is no justification for the inequality in social and economic environment.

Years ago, as a college boy in Richmond, Va., I had a job investigating needy applicants for Christmas baskets. This opportunity led me into amazing paths of discovery and awakening. It gave me a lasting conviction which became the core of all that I can recognize as a social philosophy. This was simply that no man can be justly judged until you've looked at the world through his eyes. It carried over to children classed as delinquents, to the impoverished tobacco workers of the city, and to men in prison. It carried over to the humble people who made up the families of the left side of the tracks.

This insight was channeled into my work with the Negro migrants, moving in millions in a current too vast for them to comprehend, and into each successive human problem that has become a part of my experience, whether in the South, or in the cities of the North, or in Africa, or Haiti, or in Japan.

What life means to me is something constantly in process of reconstruction, a reconstruction made necessary by ever shifting scenes and situations but which I hope draws nourishment from each difficult contact with life. Life to me is an endless challenge, a challenge imposed by the forces of nature and social life, itself. But I like to feel that it is the spiritual life of the world, which is the greatest bulwark against the threatening tides of worldliness, greed and insensitiveness to the needs and desires of man. Some people call that spiritual life "Nature," and some call it "God."

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