I was a mother of two boys, ages one and 3, who’d just been diagnosed with AIDS. It was 1991 and there were no life-saving treatments so I was headed toward an early grave. Max and Zachary, my sons, were bound to become orphans.

A year later, for reasons too complicated to review here, I was invited to keynote the 1992 Republican National Convention. There’d be a stadium packed with 75,000 disinterested people and a worldwide audience of several hundred million. I wanted to make a difference before I died. It’s also true that I was terrified. I knew I had AIDS. I did not know if I had courage.

Ultimately, I found courage because of my children. “I want my children to know that their mother was not a victim,” I said that steamy night in Houston. “She was a messenger. I do not want them to think, as I once did, that courage is the absence of fear; I want them to know that courage is the strength to act wisely when most we are afraid. I want them to have the courage to step forward when called by their nation and give leadership — no matter what the personal cost.”

I remembered that night in Houston last week as I watched the president’s mob drive Members of Congress and others into hiding at risk of their lives. I imagined the terror they felt, the frightened calls to their families as the reality of the assault sank in.

And now, it’s a new week, the interim between the riot and the inaugural. The Capitol has been repaired. Windows are fixed, doors are rehung, offices are reassembled. A small percentage of rioters have been arrested. The riotous president has accepted no responsibility for the damage or the dead. And, as unbelievable as it was, 147 Republicans — after the riot! — continued to support the lie of a “stolen election.” Assuming these Members of the Party I once served have the intellectual capacity of a toad, what could possibly have motivated their votes to persist in illusion, lies and dishonorable claims?

For some, it was political ambition. (Who’d ever heard of the Dishonorable Josh Hawley?) For some, it was “Party loyalty,” the religious allegiance keeping us from breaking ranks. For most, it was simply fear. Fear that they would be shunned by others in their club. Fear that someone would say they didn’t support the blustering president. Fear that, come the next election cycle, they’d face a primary challenge from someone even farther into the extreme right than they are. Or perhaps, after all, they now know the fear borne of death threats against themselves and their families.

On this date in 1929 a Black child born in Atlanta, Georgia, came into a world shaped by Jim Crow, the overseer of brutalities and humiliations. Every four days, someone who looked like him was burned alive or lynched. By the time he reached adulthood, he knew the smell of blood spilled in the cause of justice. He knew the brutality of snarling dogs, the flailed skin left by the bullwhip. By then, Martin Luther King Jr. knew courage. He also knew cowardice.

“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles,” he wrote. But “cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.” All it takes is courage.

In the wobbling defenses of politicians still supporting a bully, we’ve heard the cowardice. But now and then, there’s been courage. We heard it when Mitt Romney, assaulted on a flight from Utah to Washington DC, suggested how best to deal with those who believe Trump’s lies: “Tell them the truth.”

I heard it when I spoke with Congressman Adam Schiff after he’d faced a mob calling for his death. He worries for his family. But he doesn’t worry about his legacy. He stands with the truth, holding a quiet courage that’s reassuring.

I admit that it’s easy to call for courage when I am not the one who has to demonstrate it. I know. And I don’t doubt that rioters and insurrectionists want blood. Their darkest instincts have been stoked by a coward and they’ve proven their willingness to engage in violence. They left bodies in their wake last week. I’ve faced enough death threats myself to know the fear they inspire.

But we will have neither leadership nor a democracy if we are driven to cowardice by our fear. What’s needed now, more than at any time in my life, is courage. We are desperate for leaders willing to act wisely when most they are afraid. We need them every time a Proud Boy brandishes his bullying tactics. We need them in Washington DC. We need them in 50 State capitals. And we need them now.

That child born 92 years ago today modeled courage. He led, and others of us still follow, not because he was unafraid but because he did not let his fear restrain his goodness.

That night in 1992 when I spoke to the crowd, I knew that we needed leaders who would “step forward when called by their nation to give leadership, no matter what the personal cost.” It has not changed, and death has not quieted the voice of the man whose birthday we celebrate. We know — in our bones, we know — that he was right: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Let there be courage.

Speaker, artist and author. Activist calling for courage, compassion and integrity. Mom/Grandma. 1st Female White House Advanceman. Keynoted ’92 RNC.