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In a City of 'Good People,' How Can 'Selma' Happen?

03/17/2015 03:35 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015

"Do not be a follower of the majority to evil." - Exodus 23:2

In the late '90s, syndicated radio host Dennis Praeger developed a video called "For Goodness Sake" about the pay-back we each get from doing good deeds. Because of the importance of this topic, prominent Hollywood actors donated their time to act out vignettes. In one on-the-street scene, the narrator asks random people if they're a good person. One woman indignantly replies, "Of course I'm a good person. I don't kill or cheat or steal." Praeger then observes,"That doesn't make you a good person. That just doesn't make you a criminal. To be a good person, you have to do something good!"

I've often asked the question: how, amidst a community of so-called good people, could the discrimination, segregation and beatings of Selma, Alabama, and elsewhere in the South, have happened? How did the pastors, preachers, principals, politicians and police endorse or condone what happened, actively participate in it, or openly stand by?

The answer: like the woman in Praeger's video, they believed they were good people. They were contributing to community, raising families, paying taxes, going to church and working at jobs. Despite segregation and the push back against equality for blacks, they we able to tell themselves that they were upstanding citizens and that -- despite evidence to the contrary -- their community was indeed good.

And because they were "good people," they were able to adopt and sustain the deep cultural mores of discrimination, segregation, hatred and violence -- knowing full well that the vision and values of America stood opposed to their actions.

But they didn't care. They viewed themselves as the "good people," and their community reinforced their status. The "bad people" were the rabble-rousers -- John Lewis, MLK and others who were trying to destroy their community's way of life.

We often portray life within these moralistic extremes -- good people versus bad people, instead of people who do good things or people who do bad things -- and this portrayal allows the "good people" to duck under a cloak of insular customs that many times contradict our nation's fundamental principles and aspirations.

If someone is a contributor within a majority community -- a worker, parent, leader, employer, philanthropist, church-goer -- it's becomes easy to justify the bad because in some select ways they are doing good. They're making the community work. The community, in turn, wants the select good works to continue, so people ignore the truth and compromise values.

Maybe we need a different standard -- a values standard that allows us to measure good and bad. Unless we do, the "Selmas" will continue to happen.

In current-day terms, the racist-laden ditty of the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was tolerated and institutionalized because it was being sung by the otherwise "good people" who established the fraternity's culture and traditions. The Steubenville community was able to justify covering-up a horrendous sexual assault by popular athletes because they were, otherwise, "good people" who contributed big-time to Big Red Football. And the list goes on.

In Ferguson, the weathervane of racial inequality and unbalanced police behavior, the "good people" police were fighting the "bad people" on the streets. In the interest of doing good to preserve and protect an otherwise law-abiding community, racism was fostered and values were sacrificed. Like Selma, it was tolerated, embedded, and justified -- until now.

But, why now? What makes the difference in not tolerating and, in fact, abhorring the actions of Selma, Steubenville, University of Oklahoma's SAE, Ferguson, and several other communities under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department?

The difference is that we are starting to hold our communities, college campuses, and police more to a values standard than a "good people" standard. Overtly, we're starting to ask: do the values demonstrated by the behaviors align positively or negatively with America's values? This shift can be a game-changer for the good.

The values standard rejects the so-called "good person" who is violating other peoples' rights to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." It rejects the church-going person who is righteous on Sunday but oppressive the rest of the week. Its measure of human behavior -- aligning or not aligning with our values -- can and should be the measure of a civil and decent society. How we judge one another, then, becomes: Are youlivingthe values or defying the values?

In an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "For some of us, jury duty doesn't really end at the courthouse," architect Charles Belson tells the story of how his eleven-year-old sister was abused by a neighbor:

The local priest visited my parents. He suggested that my sister imagined it. The priest said that the neighbor was a good Christian. The neighbor's family name was prominently cast into a stained glass window in our church... My mother wrote a letter to the attorney general. She explained how the district attorney and others were pressuring her and my father to agree to reduce or drop the charges. The district attorney was infuriated that my mom, a mother of four who was a full-time housewife with just a high school education and no legal training, would be sending such a letter to the attorney general... The attorney general rebuked the district attorney and arranged for the trial to be held in another part of the state, away from the influence of the neighbor's family and friends... The attorney general spoke to my mother about the profound difference one person can make in the pursuit of justice. The neighbor was convicted and sent to prison.

But ordinary people can cut both ways. They can be the people who stand by and justify bad behavior done by "good people" or the ones -- like the marchers in Selma or Mrs. Belson -- who hold society to a values standard that makes communities reservoirs of justice and decency by actually living the values that we share. The choice is really up to us.

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us
Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org