This speech was presented by Darren Walker on March 4, 2024, at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York City as part of the Benjamin Menschel Distinguished Lecture series.

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Thank you, Laura, for that kind introduction. Thank you, all, for the warm welcome. I am honored to join you—and grateful to the Menschel family for endowing this lecture in recognition of Richard’s father, Benjamin Menschel. And a special thank you to my friend David Remnick for lending his wisdom and perspicacity to tonight’s program.

For some 165 years, this great hall has served as a great American crossroads—an intersection of people and ideas; an intersection of past, and present, and future. For generations, this is where we, collectively, hold up history’s compass—to orient and reorient ourselves; to find our way forward.

I must confess, I feel overwhelmed with awe and humility as I reflect on my moment at this podium, on our moment together here: to imagine what Abraham Lincoln might have observed from this vantage; what Frederick Douglass might have discerned looking out from this dais; what Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton might have beheld. To see in your faces, the faces of our forebearers, who could not know how history would unfold. To see in our great city on edge, their great city on edge—in our great republic on the brink, their great republic on the brink.

At every consequential juncture, this great hall is where we, the people, come to deliberate and to decide. And for us, as for those who came before us, we are staring straight, unavoidably, into a crossroads of our own—into a hard set of choices.

These are choices about what kind of nation we are and will be; about what kind of leaders we will be; about what kind of citizens we will be. These are choices between hope and fear; between courage and despair; between one world view that tells us “might makes right” and another that insists, as Lincoln affirmed for the ages here, that “right makes might”—that our shared values, our democratic values, remain our greatest strength.

These days, one might reasonably wonder whether America’s many multitudes are even reading the same compass. We are pulled hither and yon, in so many different directions.

Tonight, though, I would propose that we still do share what Frederick Douglass called “true north”: A set of ideas—aspirations—enshrined in Thomas Jefferson’s declaration, to which Lincoln appealed time and again during the tumultuous, transformative years that followed his visit here:

We all are created equal. We all are endowed with inalienable rights.

Our American identity emerges not from “blood and soil,” but from fidelity to these truths we hold self-evident even still. Out of many, we are one.

We believe in equal representation, equal rights, and equal justice—in what Douglass called “absolute equality.”

We believe in freedom, with fairness—in free expression, free exercise, and a free press.

We believe in our moral responsibilities, in empathy and generosity.

We believe in liberty and justice—and in striking the balance between the two, between the rights of the individual and our responsibilities to the collective.

To be sure, some say, these are “hollow words, at best.” The facts are undeniable. America has functioned as a democracy for less than one human lifetime—and an imperfect democracy at that. When you think about it, our democracy is only as old as I am.

I was born in 1959, into a nation riven by American apartheid. When I was a child, the adults in my life could not vote in our Louisiana and Texas towns. I was six years old when President Lyndon Johnson enacted legislation to guarantee the franchise. And even these protections are imperiled now, as are so many of our fundamental rights.

And yet, for my part, I believe that our American compass is still true. I see flawed genius in our founders and their legacy—and in Lincoln’s determination to preserve that legacy at the greatest cost.

To me, the contradiction—the hypocrisy—of our founders is less remarkable than what they set in motion. They initiated a grand, complicated experiment in self-government. It led to abolition, and suffrage, and workers’ rights, and civil rights, and women’s rights—however slowly, however unevenly.

More astounding still, generation by generation, Black people and brown people, the Indigenous and the immigrant, Jews and Muslims, queer people and people with disabilities—we all claimed the American project as our birthright. We expanded the circle of inclusion and opportunity, making real the American promise, step by step, crossroads by crossroads, now 250 years on.

Jefferson and the others passed to us something unprecedented, something radical: That true compass—the tools with which to navigate our course toward a multiracial, multiethnic, pluralist democracy that extends the privilege of American identity to all.

I love my country. I am grateful to my country. We should be proud of our country.

Instead, a sense of nihilism has taken hold, all across America. We are tearing each other down, tearing ourselves apart at the seams, and tearing our nation asunder.

It is almost banal to note, America is more irreparably divided than ever before in our lifetimes. We may well be barreling down a parallel path to the one that Lincoln and his contemporaries traveled in the 1850s. The sustainability, the durability, the survival of our democratic republic is in jeopardy.

What’s different, today, are the trends that have converged and carried us here.

The primary current carving a great chasm across our land—across our national soul and psyche—is inequality: Inequality in access and agency, in resources and respect, in voice and value; inequalities of all kinds and categories, the consequence of a market system that is wildly out of balance.

I am a proud capitalist. I believe in the market system’s unique power to lift lives and livelihoods when abetted by public policy that ensures the market is fair and inclusive. But in a democratic-capitalist society, democracy must come first, or the whole enterprise collapses.

Today, for too many Americans of every color and creed—in red states and blue—the mobility escalator has sputtered to a stop. Millions live on the brink—their lives defined by trauma, by pain, by an inescapable and insidious hopelessness. And hope? Hope is the oxygen of democracy.

The poet asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Well, what happens to the American dream betrayed?

One can understand why so many people respond to a world that feels completely out of control—a world turned completely against them—with fear, with resentment, with grievance, with vitriol.

One also must acknowledge how the forces of narrow self-interest in our society exploit these disaffected, disillusioned people and communities—how they prey on them for their own gain, with impunity.

One can also see, then, how our broken, for-profit media system aggravates our inequality crisis.

If America’s founders agreed on anything, it was that democracy would depend on a free and fact-based press; that, through the free press, facts would precede opinion, not the other way around; and that through “enlightenment,” as Jefferson said, “tyranny…[would] vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

Of course, what we see today—the media conglomerates’ current operating model—is exactly the opposite.

Audiences respond to the most prurient and pernicious content. So, the content and programming algorithms deliver hour after hour of it, monetizing the degradation of our democracy.

On cable, we see hate and hostility, misinformation and disinformation, sometimes outright falsehoods, pumped into the bloodstream of the body politic. And online, the most obnoxious, odious voices garner the most clicks, and likes, and shares—truth be damned—training the algorithms to feed us ever-increasing doses of poison.

This formula may provide a healthy return on capital, but it does so at the cost of an information cancer, now metastasizing throughout our democracy.

And then into the torrent converges another defining, destabilizing trend, too: We are mired in a culture of absolutism.

If I asked you to encapsulate the last decade of American life in a single word, you might offer up a few possibilities: Aberrant? Abhorrent?

I might suggest another: “Extreme.”

Everything right now, it seems, is black or white, all or nothing, perfect or unacceptable. Every venue has become a theater for affirming our own virtue or righteousness—or for denying someone else’s.

The purpose of the public square has become completely perverted. Only a generation ago, we used the commons as the infrastructure through which to negotiate diversity and difference—to find common ground, sometimes more effectively than others. But now, we treat the public square as merely another platform on which to perform; another platform on which to take a side and to prove our piety to it.

Nuance and complexity are nowhere to be found. In their place is a pervasive, paralyzing cynicism. And so, our extreme challenges remain extremely unsolved.

Certainly, not everyone is equally complicit. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the people and groups that denigrate our long-shared American values are somehow on equal footing with those of us defending them. This is a false moral equivalence.

Make no mistake about my own convictions: I believe that the advocacy of those women and men with their hands on that long moral arc, bending it inch by inch toward justice—they are of a different category than those whose hands are tearing it all down. The former are challenging us to be better. The latter too often are daring us to be worse.

Nevertheless, as a result, we have normalized mendacity and malice—bizarrely enough, even among those with whom we mostly agree.

And among those with whom we disagree? We shame. We cancel. We dehumanize. We demonize.

These are the facts—the painful facts. As Americans, we are increasingly intolerant of each other. Intolerant.

Lincoln’s admonition—“a house divided against itself cannot stand”—feels truer, realer, rawer than ever. And we must decide what matters most: The America we love? The America we are, at our best? The democratic values to which we aspire? Or the self-satisfaction of our self-certainty, and the self-destruction that follows?

So, what are we to do? At this hour of choosing, what are we to decide?

For starters, let’s choose to lead. And let’s choose to make things easier on the people who are courageous enough to lead, and courageous enough to tell the truth.

Effective leadership, moral leadership, demands that we listen with more humility, and curiosity, and empathy, even if we don’t agree with 100 percent of what we assume we are hearing. It requires that we build longer bridges—among communities that look, speak, work, worship, or vote differently than we do. It challenges us to recognize that within all of this rolling crisis, there is opportunity—if we are brave enough to see it, and to seize it.

We—all of us—have made it too difficult for good leaders to do the work of holding up that compass and finding the way out and through. We are discouraging courage.

Honestly, there never has been a more difficult time to lead anything, global or local, public or private, big or small.

And the new prevailing attitude says: Just keep your head down. Protect yourself—and your reputation. Speaking out will cost you more than it buys.

We must reject this way of operating. For goodness’ sake, what is the point of calling ourselves leaders if we are afraid to actually lead?

I don’t claim any special access to moral principles. I do believe, however, that we need more leaders focused on something bigger than the next earnings call—or living in fear of the next reporter to call. We need new profiles in courage—leaders who recognize that bringing light is always worth the heat.

We also need leaders with a moral compass and the courage to embrace the nuance and complexity to which we have become allergic. Indeed, the very definition of effective leadership is managing nuance, managing complexity, seeing all sides of an issue from the perspectives of every stakeholder, and then setting a course, and communicating with clarity, consistent with a core set of values.

This is true in government and business and civil society alike. And it is not easy.

We struggle with this in reconciling with and rectifying the past—which was never all sin or all salvation. We struggle with this in the present—given the pain and grief and despair of this moment; given widening deficits of trust, and empathy, and faith in our shared humanity; given the inequality that desensitizes us to the suffering of others, preventing us from joining together in common cause to solve shared challenges.

And yet, we know, the road to reconciliation—to shared healing and shared hope—runs through precisely these things: trust, and empathy, and faith in each other; grace and love for each other; collective action for a common good.

And progress down that road requires that we rediscover and recommit to our shared American identity.

From my own life’s journey, I understand how, and how much, our identities matter. I understand how the intersecting elements of our identities too often determine what doors are open to us, and what doors remain closed. And yet, from more than six decades on this earth, I believe that none of my identities matters more than my American identity.

The truth is, I have lived on both sides of American inequality.

I grew up Black in the “Lost Cause,” Jim Crow South. In college, I knew people who proudly hung Confederate flags on their dormitory walls, who attended fraternity parties in their Confederate greys. And yet, throughout my life, I have benefited, in ways visible and invisible, from Americans, Black and white, who challenged our nation to fulfill its promise.

I grew up poor—the son of a single mother, in a small shotgun house. And yet, throughout my life, I benefited from the American people’s investments in Head Start, and public schools, and Pell Grants.

I grew up gay at a time when many people saw my sexuality as a psychological disorder, or a crime. And yet, throughout my life, I have seen Americans choose equality.

This is not to deny that I sometimes feel exhausted and demoralized, too. I feel the impatience. I feel the frustration. And I worry deeply about the ubiquitous sense of unfairness that has consumed so many of us. Too many people sense that others are gaining an advantage or an edge, while they are falling behind.

No doubt, by virtue of good fortune, our system has made me a winner. It has lifted me out of poverty—and given me the opportunities to realize my dreams. Yet, too many feel that this same system is working against them—that it is rigged against them. So, I also worry deeply about the rage that tears away at our patriotism.

We cannot allow this kind of anger to fester, not any longer. We cannot surrender our patriotism, neither our love of country nor our service to country, because the only way to ensure that America works for everyone is for everyone to put in the work for America—not just giving something back, but giving something of ourselves; sacrificing to be part of something greater.

Which brings us back to that snowy evening, 164 years ago last week, when a lanky, young Illinois congressman stepped onto this very stage in his wrinkled suit. At that moment, Lincoln’s opponents were demanding that the federal government permit slavery’s spread to the west. But more than that, they were threatening to destroy the republic itself, unless, as Lincoln said here, they be allowed to “rule or ruin” as they pleased, without regard to the Constitution.

This kind of all-or-nothing government—this kind of asymmetrical autocracy—may well sound familiar. We hear the echoes almost daily.

But what Lincoln wisely knew then—what we would be well served to remember now—was that democracy is no permanent condition. He knew that the only way to protect democracy, to preserve democracy, is through the give and take—through the slow, sometimes-frustrating, consensus-building machinery that our founders engineered.

In a word, through compromise.

After all, if and when we lose our ability to disagree without destroying one another, then everything is jeopardized, everything is imperiled—because where compromise ends, where the basic value of tolerance ends, this is where violence begins.

For too long, we have accepted the zero-sum thinking that says, “If the other side wins on anything, my side loses on everything.” Enough.

Compromise is often undesirable. It is frustrating, distasteful, by definition. Worse, it can perpetuate the very harm that we most fervently yearn to heal.

But the work of justice is much bigger than any one compromise. It is the work of a lifetime, the work of generations, the work of the American project itself.

And so, together, at this time of choosing, let us recommit ourselves to the grandest project of all: the American experiment, the American idea. Let’s step away from the extremes and from the edge—away from the sanctimony and certitude.

At this profound crossroads for our democracy, let’s, once again, hold up history’s compass and take measure—of the road we have traveled, of the journey ahead. There is no map; there never was. But with leadership, with open minds and open hearts, with vigilance, with hope, we can and will find our way back to “true north,” together.