Last Monday would have been Betty White’s 100th birthday. She missed celebrating it by a few weeks. Last Monday was also Martin Luther King Day. At first glance, it might appear those two facts have little in common, but I think they have a great deal in common. I think Betty White gave us three important tools to use for making Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream become reality.
Before explaining, I want to thank a few people for being a friend to me. I love the theme song, Thank You For Being a Friend that played at the start of every episode of Golden Girls. I never tired of hearing that song as Betty White and her companions hugged one another.
I want to thank some friends with dark skin for being a friend to me: Diane, Rozella, Anthony, Tom, John, Doris, Mary, Phyllis, and many others who have befriended me. They have not held the color of my skin against me. It would have been understandable, even logical for them to do so, given the way some with my pigment have treated people with their pigment. Instead, these folks befriended me and worked with me in ministry and writing circles. We have shared meals, socialized, and traveled together. They have gone out of their way to include me and, given the circumstances some have had to endure, I am touched by their grace. To each of them, thank you for being a friend.
Tributes to Betty White
The news has been full of tributes to Betty White and her 80 years in the entertainment world. She was a talented actress and comedian. Her quick wit, ability to deliver a punch line at just the right moment, with just the right spin, coupled with her boundless energy, made her the darling of the screen.
Because of her 100th birthday this week, she is becoming better known for her love and advocacy on the part of all manner of animals. As an avowed animal lover her death inspired new donations for animal shelters and zoos. In her book Betty & Friends, she writes about her extensive engagement at the zoo. She wrote that her parents were “genuine animal nuts” and that she gladly claims inheriting that passion. As a life-long animal lover myself, I am grateful for her determination to speak for creatures who cannot speak for themselves.
A True Friend
However, what I most admire about Betty White is her decision to defend the civil rights of others as far back as the 50s. Then television was new and prejudice against people of color was very much part of the decision-making process. Betty gave Arthur Duncan, a Black man, a place on her talent show. He was 21 at the time, and just starting a prestigious career as a dancer.
In his 2018 documentary, he credits Betty for helping him get started in show business. Because of rampant discrimination, the network wanted her to delete him from the show. Network executives thought the presence of a Black man was too controversial and would impact ratings. They threatened to take the show off the air, but their threat backfired. Betty told the network executives, “I’m sorry, but he stays. Live with it.”
Using Status for Justice
All this brings me to three important gifts I believe Betty White used to contribute to the ongoing march toward a society in which Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous hope is realized. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The first tool Betty used was to stick up for those who weren’t in a position to defend themselves against prejudice and injustice. When Betty White spoke, people listened. She had a platform and she wasn’t afraid to use it to benefit others who lacked the opportunities she had.
No one gets to choose their skin pigment, but we all get to decide how we use our assigned color in society. Betty chose to use her whiteness to campaign for others.
The second tool I’ve observed Betty use is her gift of making people laugh. Laughter is truly good medicine. Betty used lots and lots of humor. Humor is the oil that keeps the wheels of society turning. It is hard to hate people with whom we’ve shared a good long, laugh. Humor dissolves tensions, builds bridges, and cements friendships. Betty was a true professional in the good humor department.
The third tool she applied was persistence. She just kept going. She believed she’d be with us to celebrate her 100th birthday and made plans to do so. She could have easily retired to enjoy the fruits of her years of labor at 70, or 80, or certainly by age 90. But she did not. She kept showing up for one more interview, one more appearance, one more special event. She kept on keeping on until finally, she slipped from this life into the next.
RIP, Betty White
Betty White did more than many, and certainly, more than was required of her to help us through her gift of laughter. She also used that gift to advocate for animals and open doors for people who too often experienced doors slammed shut on them. Let’s strive to be like Betty. Let us use our status to help others, use humor, and keep on keeping on.
Rest in Peace, Betty. You’ve certainly earned it. Thank you for being a friend.
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