Shining thoughts on leadership and social change…

…from civil rights leader Andrew Young, reflecting on the legacy of his friend Martin Luther King.

“Today, almost three decades later, Martin’s legacy looms even larger than we thought possible in the days immediately after April 4, 1968.  And as the details of his travails, his struggles, and the atmosphere of turmoil and contention have receded into broad strokes of black and white, Martin has become a larger-than-life symbol, almost a deity, rather than the flesh-and-blood man I knew.  There is a danger in this.

We should not lose our sense of how the civil rights movement happened, because if we do, younger generations, along with ourselves, will lose a sense of how new opportunities were fought for, and won.  In blurring, or ignoring, the context of the struggle, the veneration of Martin Luther King becomes devoid of depth and context, and the ability to use his model to renew the struggle for a just and equitable society is lost.

In these days of “everything for me,” Martin’s decision to devote his life to social change seems almost of another age.  But if his life teaches us anything, it is that real leadership must be grounded in the interest and institutions of the people, and leadership must appeal to the most moral, disciplined, and determined qualities in our nature.  This can only come from a process of continual questioning, the capacity to overcome mistakes, and the ability to follow a path courageously once it is chosen, all of which was Martin King’s essential nature.”

–    Andrew Young, An Easy Burden, pgs 473-74

I appreciate Young’s reflection here for many reasons, but especially his point that King has become venerated in such a way that all the surrounding context of what made him meaningful fades to the background.  It is no surprise that this has happened, since powerful interests would like us to forget the most successful grassroots advocacy movement to come down the pike in a long, long time.  President John Kennedy claimed he didn’t have the votes to pull off comprehensive civil rights reforms; the Birmingham campaign led by King forced action.  President Lyndon Johnson claimed he didn’t have enough political capital to pass a voting rights bill so soon after the civil rights legislation; the Selma campaign led by King forced action.  Through SCLC’s continued action that dramatized the great inequalities and sinfulness of the status quo in America, great social reforms were accomplished.  So, let us heed the warning from Young that “in blurring, or ignoring, the context of the struggle, the veneration of Martin Luther King becomes devoid of depth and context, and the ability to use his model to renew the struggle for a just and equitable society is lost.”  Let us practice the opposite, to “sharpen, and pay careful attention to the context of the struggle, so our admiration of King becomes rich with depth and context, and the ability to use his model to renew the struggle for a just and equitable society is enhanced.”

And I deeply appreciate Young’s reminder that “leadership must appeal to the most moral, disciplined, and determined qualities in our nature.  This can only come from a process of continual questioning, the capacity to overcome mistakes, and the ability to follow a path courageously once it is chosen.”

How often are we being shaped in our society to embrace our most moral, disciplined, and determined qualities in our nature?  Does, for example, the most relevant example of the rise of the Tea Party in America follow this path?  It is clear that Tea Party leaders are galvanizing a group of people for change, but change in what direction?  Are people being led to the values of Andrew Young here?  Are his values wise?

And how often are we taught that leadership emerges from “a process of continual questioning”?  I have most often been taught that leadership is about firm decisions and the appearance of solidity, even if it appears the opposite is true.  Is it true that wise leadership is in fact much more flexible, more relational, more in touch with our limited nature and limited understanding of truth?  Is it in fact more about a courageous path, mistakes along the way, confession when we were wrong, and shared glory when we’ve gotten it right?

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