Legacy is the measure of life’s impact

Kerrion, Carrington, and Kennedy are children. Blessed children. Blessed because they are primary beneficiaries of a powerful legacy.

Yes, they receive the benefits of economic affluence and exposure to A-list celebrities on a regular basis. And yes, they’re in a prime position to have any musical ability nurtured and developed in a way most young musicians could only dream of. But those things are tiny compared to the legacy of honesty and integrity demonstrated by their father, gospel superstar Kirk Franklin.

Franklin was a guest of world-famous TV talk guru Oprah Winfrey recently. But instead of promoting his new album, Hero, or engaging in some other fluff story, Kirk Franklin appeared to discuss his freedom from addiction. Which, in and of itself is not newsworthy, since just about every legendary performer has had to struggle with some obsession that got out of control. But Franklin’s struggle was not with drugs or alcohol, but with a subject many consider to be taboo in the church: pornography.


Porn in the U.S.A.

Porn has gone so mainstream that most celebrities either laugh it off and pretend it’s not a big deal or deny any knowledge or involvement. And statistically, Christians are just as susceptible (if not more so) to the lure of porn, because sexuality in the church is always so hush-hush. Even though it’s been a cancerous scourge for so long, people in the church are slow to talk about it.

Even with guys like Craig Gross and Mike Foster, creators of XXXChurch.com (tagline: “The #1 Christian porn site”), who have made it their mission to go around and talk about porn and its effects on society, it’s still a touchy thing. XXXChurch has been denounced by many conservative Christians, probably for no other reason than the idea of putting “XXX” in front of the word “church.” These Southern Californian believers have been at it since 2002, traveling to porn trade shows (with their wives, of course) with a message that God offers something better. The very idea of two Christian men having a porn outreach is somewhat jarring, so instead of hammering their morals home with fire and brimstone, they use subversive humor to lower defenses. And it seems to be working, because they’ve gotten a lot of exposure. Just last week, they were featured on a CNN broadcast.

But even with all that exposure, the XXXChurch guys don’t have even close to the same level of Q-rating star power that Kirk Franklin has. So for Kirk and his wife Tammy to appear on Oprah’s show and discuss the toll that pornography took on their marriage… well, it made for more than mesmerizing television. It made a difference. Because of that broadcast, millions of men, particularly Black men, will be inspired to take a step and make themselves vulnerable to criticism by admitting that they have a problem. After all, if Kirk doesn’t care about people looking down at him, then why should they feel any different?

That’s why Kirk Franklin’s legacy will be found not only in record sales and music awards, but in modeling what a stable marriage looks like. His children will grow up seeing a father who can honor his wife by admitting his wrongdoing. More than popularity or fame, a reputation for honesty and integrity is a powerful legacy to leave.

That can be a hard lesson to learn.

In this life, people who take a stand for honesty and integrity don’t always get kudos on a national stage.

Sometimes, they get the shaft.

‘Everybody Pays’

This was one of the lessons I gleaned from a great book I read recently. It’s called Everybody Pays: Two Men, One Murder, and the Price of Truth. It’s the story of Harry Aleman, a notorious hitman for the Chicago Outfit, and Bob Lowe, the lone witness to one of his murders. In 1972, organized crime thrived on intimidation and the unspoken code of silence from people who didn’t want to get involved. So when federal investigators uncovered Bob Lowe, an eyewitness to a crime that was actually willing to testify, they were thrilled. Finally they had a chance to take Harry Aleman down for good.

Only, it didn’t exactly happen that way. Corruption inside the Chicago criminal court system made it possible for the judge presiding over the case to be bribed with $10,000 in exchange for an acquittal. So Lowe, who had to uproot his family and move several times for fear of retaliation, had sacrificed it all — and lost.

Or so it seemed, anyway. So distraught from the acquittal, Lowe’s life began to spiral as he moved from dead-end job to dead-end job, drowning in Jack Daniels and dabbling in cocaine. Eventually he served some time on his own for a few robberies he committed in a drunken stupor. It wasn’t until after he had served a few years and gotten himself sober again that he could look back and see where he had gone wrong.

Even so, Lowe was eager to put the whole ordeal behind him after he was released from prison. So when authorities re-indicted Harry Aleman for the same murder, after having already proven that the first trial in 1976 was fixed, Lowe was, let’s say, less than enthusiastic to participate. “Go to hell,” he told one of the investigators.

Nevertheless, in September of 1997 Aleman was tried again, and the defense again called Bob Lowe to testify. The first time around, Aleman’s defense team had shredded his credibility with a series of questions designed to leave him confused and unsure of himself. This time, Bob Lowe was unshakeable. With all he and his family had gone through, he was determined to prevail. He told the truth, kept his head up, and came out looking like a hero.

Which Legacy Is it?

As the book comes to a close, it’s natural to examine the legacies that both men will leave. Any good story has a protagonist and an antagonist, but these two men provide a rounded portrait of both sides of humanity. Neither man can claim a spotless resumé. In the book, the authors Possley and Kogan depict Bob Lowe as the hero, and in many ways he was. But to members of his family, his brand of heroism was tragic. Lowe was so fixated on the injustice that he suffered as a result of Aleman’s acquittal, letting his alcoholic desires have the best of him.

Even more fascinating, however, is Aleman himself. If you read the transcript of his plea for release from custody in 1990, you’ll read the words of love and devotion he has for his family. And I’m sure in many Chicago neighborhoods, even today, you’ll find plenty of people willing to put in a good word for Harry Aleman. “He was a good man,” they’ll say. His wife Ruth, who died in 2000, insisted that he was always a model father. He showered his children with gifts, always made sure to have dinner with them, and treasured spending time with them.

With all the love that Harry Aleman received from his loyal supporters, it’s hard to remember that this is the same man that was one of the most feared men in Chicago. He was wanted for countless mob-related murders spanning over twelve years. Yet here he is, somehow being cast as a family man. Which portrait is right? Depends on who you ask. As a man of advanced years, Harry Aleman doesn’t appear fit the role of celebrity hitman anymore. But as for whether he’s had a change of heart, none except God and Aleman himself can truly answer that question.

Do Gangsters Change?

That’s an essential question in what is becoming a similar controversy in Los Angeles. Hollywood personalities and other left-leaning activists are lobbying for Gov. Schwarzenegger to grant clemency to Stanley “Tookie” Williams. The West Coast’s “Crips” co-founder was convicted of four murders in 1979 and was, during the penalty phase of his trial, sentenced to death. Since then, his advocates say, he has undergone an extraordinary transformation from gang leader to peacemaker.

Charles L. Lindner, former president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Association, had this to say about Tookie Williams in an L.A. times editorial pleading for his life:

Schwarzenegger should seriously consider the mitigating evidence that has arisen since Williams was sentenced to death. If Ingber could have presented evidence that Williams would be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times, that he would write anti-gang children’s books and negotiate the end to a gang war, it is reasonable to believe that the jury might have found sufficient value in Williams’ life to spare him death.

Advocates of Tookie Williams believe that his goodwill efforts outweigh the heinous crimes he committed as a young adult.

Not so, says Joshua Marquis, a Clatsop County, Ore. district attorney and vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. In an opposing editorial, he proclaimed that Williams is a murderer that should die for his crimes:

So what makes Williams deserving of the extraordinary benefit of commutation? We are asked to believe that because he has coauthored some children’s books he has “reformed.” Yet he refuses to do what we morally and legally expect even from shoplifters: to express remorse for his actions. His true legacy may lie with his children. His namesake, Stanley Williams Jr., is doing time in another California prison for second-degree murder. Williams claims he discourages kids from getting involved in gang life, yet a San Quentin official recently suggested that he still orchestrates gang activity outside the prison, according to an Associated Press story.

The AP story Marquis is referring to is a claim by San Quentin prison officials to discredit Tookie’s claims of redemptive conversion. If Williams really wanted to make restitution for his crimes, they say, then he would agree to submit to what they call a “debriefing” process, wherein he is expected to inform on his old Crip compadres. His refusal to do so, combined with his substantial prison bank account and an informal association with other incarcerated Crips has led authorities to believe that he may still have a controlling voice in current gang operations.

Both sides of this argument have compelling arguments, and I can understand why this is such a heated argument. Death-penalty opponents have been waiting for a case like this for years to illustrate just how flawed our system is. On the other end of it, many victim-advocate groups are decrying this outcry of support, saying that it justifies gang violence and ignores the suffering of the families of victims who don’t have the liberal P.R. machine on their side.

But question of whether Tookie’s execution will be commuted to a life sentence is, in the grand scheme of things, somewhat irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that regardless of what Gov. Schwarzenegger decides, Tookie Williams is going to die in custody of the state of California. If he is pardoned and given clemency, then — by all means — it’s a victory for his cause. Hopefully he will be able to continue his efforts at redirecting young lives away from gang activity and thug life. But if not, if Tookie is required by the state to atone for his crime by relinquishing his life on earth to a poisonous needle, then his example of redemption and peacemaking will live on. He will become a cultural, socio-political martyr, a sort of Tupac-meets-Che-Guevara figure.

In other words, the good causes that Williams’ latter years have come to represent should only be advanced more fully in his death. If Williams is executed, and the cadres of leftist advocates fail to pick up the ball and run with his message of hope and redemption, then they’ll be exposed as opportunists that cared more about a political agenda then they did about making a difference in the community.

But hopefully that won’t happen. It’s my sincere hope that, live or die, the life of Tookie Williams will be celebrated as an example of someone who chose to alter his destiny and pass on a greater legacy.

Project Clean Slate

I imagine the example of Tookie Williams and others like him must have inspired Portland civic leader Roy Jay.

Besides presiding over Portland’s African-American Chamber of Commerce and cementing his status as one of P-town’s biggest movers and shakers, Jay masterminded the overwhelmingly successful initiative Project Clean Slate. The first of its kind, the project allows citizens to clear minor criminal convictions from their records, exchanging the requisite fines for community service.

Projects like these are important in urban communities. Inequalities in our criminal justice system sometimes result in hardworking, productive citizens being arrested unfairly. Once you add an unhealthy fear of police and ignorance of legal protocol into the mix, there can be thousands of poor ethnic minorites with minor blemishes on their record. These convictions can prevent them from capitalizing on better job opportunities or adequate housing options.

It’s no wonder, then, that the project was a success , with over 2,500 Oregonians who lined up to make a new start. Roy Jay understands a basic truth that sometimes eludes hard-liners: wiping away minor criminal convictions can help people in the margins to avoid major ones. It’s an anthropological extension of the broken-window theory , which says that more serious crimes can be deterred by constant, vigilant upkeep of urban environments. In this way, the broken windows are emblematic of broken lives. But just as the windows can be restored, so can people. Even the darkest chapters in a person’s life can be followed by redemption.

What Does It All Mean?

There are many lessons we can learn from these stories.

First, life on this earth is not merely a series of linear progressions. People are complex creatures, equally capable of both benevolence and brutality. That’s why stereotyping isn’t a fail-safe way to evaluate people. People change. Situations change. As Hume teaches us, the past is not a reliable way to predict the future.

So as we look toward the future, it may pay dividends to remain flexible in your alliances with people and ideas. The heroes and villains of today could end up changing sides in five years, like free agent sports heroes in the offseason.

At the same time, though, we must cling to the things we value most. And in these stories, those qualities were hope and integrity.

For in the same way that vandalism and broken windows detract from the general quality of life, sometimes failures of the past can rob us of our confidence and dignity. If you experience enough of them, you may eventually come to the conclusion that you’re better off embracing your dysfunction instead of trying to get a handle on it.

But that’s where hope and integrity come in and make a difference. It’s why Kirk Franklin was able to repair his marriage, why Bob Lowe got paroled and Harry Aleman got convicted. It’s the integrity to admit when you need help. It’s the hope that no matter how dark a chapter of life we’ve endured, we get a chance to write another.

In the final analysis, our lives will be a composite of all those life chapters. The main question that will shape our future biographies will not be whether or not we left a legacy, but what our legacy consisted of.

‘Cause that’s what we’ll be known for.

That’s what will make a difference.

I’m G*Natural; thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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