Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

“American Freedom, the Spirit of Innovation & the Creative Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Delivered at The General Electric Corporation Black History Month Celebration

February 26, 2014

By Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III

Where there is freedom there is a spirit of innovation and creativity. Where there is no freedom, the spirit of innovation lags, wanes and perishes in the quagmires of inertia, and the people languish in uncertainty. The great civilizations and societies from Timbuktu to Egypt; from Greece to Rome; from China to India and Japan; from Persia to Israel; from Moorish Spain, to France, and Germany and Great Britain; and to America herself, from Harlem to Detroit, from Buloxi to Bourbon Street, have all had as common denominators an unbridled quest for knowledge and an unquenchable thirst for truth which leads to innovation, liberty and independence.

One writer observed this of innovation: “The capacity to be puzzled is . . . the premise of all creation and innovation, be it in art or science.” Harnessing humankind’s latent curiosity in the pursuit and conquest of new spiritual, intellectual and social frontiers – along with the discovery of technological, scientific and mathematical knowledge – has been the “twin turbines” of all civilizations in their great leaps forward.

The spirit of innovation is the power to create and change; the capacity to be changed and re-created; the ability to preserve order amid change and change amid order. In the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the courage to search out the vast expanses of the universe, to conquer new horizons, to open new corridors, to experience bitter disappointment and defeat, and to rise from the ashes phoenix-like to try again. To make seismic shifts in the acquisition and dispensation of knowledge; to fashion new paradigms and to discover old ones waiting to be re-discovered; to expose new truths that lead and have led to some of the world’s great revolutions in business, industry, art, science and technology, these have all been the raw materials of innovation and improvisation.

From the macro to the micro, from the micro to the macro; from Nicolas Copernicus’ discovery of a “sun centered” over an “earth centered” universe; to Isaac Newton and the universal law of gravity; to Daniel Bernoulli and the law of hydrodynamic pressure; to Michael Faraday and the law of electromagnetic induction; to Rudolph Clausius and the second law of thermodynamics; to Albert Einstein and the theory of special relativity and on and on. We have the spirit of innovation, the courage to dare and to do. It is one thing to think and create. It is another thing to do.

But if everyone is thinking alike someone is not truly thinking.

Where would we be as a civilization without innovation? Without the creative sparks that have become the universal torch lights of freedom lighting the way in the darkness? From Plato’s Cave, to Edison’s incandescent light, where would we be without Imhotep, Aristotle and Democritus? Without Lord Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr and Werner Eisenberg? Without Ben Franklin, Henry Ford, Alfred P. Sloan, Reg Jones and Steve Jobs?

Where would we be without the meticulous and painstaking labor of those great black inventors and scientists, Betty Wright Harris, Angie Turner King, Mary Elliot Hill,  Linda C. Meade-Tollin, Esther A.H.Hopkins, Lewis Latimer and Elijah McCoy, Granville T. Woods, George T. Samoan, John Burr, Robert Spikes, Garrett Morgan, John Standard, George Washington Carver and a cast of many untold heroes and heroines, past and present, some of whom never received recognition for their various inventions whose resounding impact still lives on with us today?

And what if the inventors at Apple had not tried to develop their first PC? What if Bill Gates had not decided to license MS-DOS to IBM? If Walt Disney had not decided to name his cartoon character Mickey Mouse? What if GE had not decided to build the world’s first intelligent turbine which harnesses the “industrial Internet” or had not decided to establish its center for executive development?

We could not have come this far without a spirit of innovation; born of the spirit of freedom, which is the spirit of America. This spirit ranges from the minds of Madam C.J. Walker and Famous Amos, to the spirit of Jack Welch whose axioms on leadership-teachability and openness to new ideas and progressive change have become the new mantras and gold standards of the creative and inventive power of leadership –  along with his creative thinking and entrepreneurial risk-taking that have changed the global reach of business the world over.

Says Welch, “The purpose is to not only develop ideas but to also develop people.” Great leaders are great followers who are open to change and are teachable. Great teachers are those who can listen to those who are not good at understanding and can understand those who are not good at listening. When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied, “You can stand out of my light,” so that I may see things clearly.

Innovation means not so much openness to confirming what we already know, but a spirit of learning what we do not know. The difference can sometimes boil down to learning to affirm what we already know to move forward, or learning what we do not know so that we can move forward even more. Sometimes our “already knowing” blocks what we can yet know. Herb Miller says sometimes it is due to outright fear: “[F]ear of making a damaging mistake, fear of changing a formula that worked well for years, fear of losing a familiar pattern or set of relationships, fear of discarding an important value, fear of trying to learn a new skill.”

In religion we say that change resistance often comes in the form of the seven last words. “We never did it that way before,” instead forging forth with the seventeen most important words, “There is no limit to what you can do if you don’t mind who gets the credit!”

We could not have come this far without a spirit of innovation, rooted and marinating in a creative resourcefulness that sees possibilities amid the disabilities, with the capacity to convert and invert constellations of logic and thinking, fuzzy or clear, linear or circular, to arrive at a new understandings of the universe. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says, “One must have chaos in one to give birth to a dancing star.”

This is the spirit of America, born of her quest to live in liberty and to free the mind to spur on its adoptive and adaptive capacities; to engender and simulate new cognitive patterns. Theologian Howard Thurman in commenting on the unity and diversity of Americas said America is a unique project. The mind of God is experimenting with America.

It is this spirit of innovation that has been the hallmark of the African American sojourn in America, where the virtues of Anglo-American culture have been forged with the gifts and strengths of African culture to create new paradigms of thinking, being and doing that have been the signature trademarks of African Americana and part of Africa’s gift to America.

Black folks could not have come this far in America without a spirit of innovation and creativity; making beans six different ways on six different days; singing a song with our trademark styling and phrasing. We could not have come without conceptualizing and amalgamating the cultural accoutrements of Europe and Africa, for the creation of a unique model of human existence – from folks ways to food ways, from ways of seeing to styles of being to ways of saying and playing, from religion, music, science, business and technology.

W.E.B Dubois’ concept of double consciousness reminds us that we have been taught to look at reality from more than just one perspective. We must speak the King’s English and devise our own English. We have always been taught to view things from the eyes of our masters and from our own eyes and the eyes of God. This has made for an interesting triad, trilogy or triage of ideas, feelings and cultural practices that have culminated in the creation of great works that have not heretofore been fully tapped or appreciated by the larger society and culture. As a former professor once put it, “Anyone who has to think at least twice about being in the world is usually more creative.”

There is more than one way of looking at this; more than one mind from which to interpret this and more than one way to build, create or do this. Alex Haley lamenting the sad state of race discrimination in America remarked that when one is held back all are held back. America might have realized some greater discovery like a cure for cancer by now had black folks been allowed to participate. From Swing to bebop, from bop to hip-hop, the innovative spirit of African-American people has helped shape America from past to present.

The African-American experience has been one of the most underutilized as a creative fount for American innovation. One reason so many African Americans invented so many things is because they were the domestics doing the work, from broom and dust pan, to the Cotton Gin, to the fountain pen, from the clothes dryer, to the typewriting machine, from the lawn mower to the supercharge system for internal combustion engines, from the automatic gear shift to the refrigerator and a whole variety of other inventions.

II. Innovation has been our name and creativity has been our game, in our experience here in America. This has been true even in the social realm when we look at the Civil Rights Movement and other movements for social change.

The spirit of innovation is not just endemic to science, industry, business and technology but also to social movements, most particularly the nonviolent movement for social change. Social movements also manifest the hallmarks of creativity and also hold in common some basic ingredients with science.

For example the rules for new discoveries and innovation in science typically follow a basic pattern: observation of specific physical realities or events; hypothesis, which is creating a statement about the general nature of the phenomenon observed; prediction, which is a forecast of a future occurrence consistent with the hypothesis and experiment, which is carrying out a test to see if predicted event occurs. Sometimes the discovery is planned, at other times accidental, such as the discovery of nylon by Dr. Julian Hill of Dupont after countless attempts by Wallace Hume Carothers.

If the result matches the prediction the hypothesis is supported. If the results do not match the prediction then the cycle is repeated.

The Civil Rights movement and other social movements also followed a similar pattern of observation, hypothesis, prediction and experiment.

The architects of Dr. King’s nonviolent strategy in the South spent many hours conceptualizing, creating and implementing a plan for nonviolent practice. There were many great minds who thought through the various strategies and tactics of nonviolence at that time. They understood that nonviolence could very well mean a violent response in a culture of violence and that the people had to be prepared to die in the wake of such confrontation. They had to be prepared to give their lives for freedom in carrying out these strategies.

Social movements contain the capacity for innovation. Our beloved country, America, is the result of creative thinking and the social construction of a republic far different and greater than its historical antecedents. The idea of government of the people, for and by the people is a creative construct that is still being worked and reworked, to this very moment, and is the product of innovative and creative thinking – a kind of political and economic entrepreneurialism that has paid many dividends and rewards for America and the world over but still has more distance to go.

The Civil Rights Movement as a strategy for positive social change took its lead from Mohandas K. Gandhi and the movement of Indian independence from the British. Dr. King and his cohorts borrowed the lessons on how to implement nonviolence as a collective strategy from Gandhi, not the idea of nonviolence in itself. Herbert Aptheker observes that nonviolence had always been practiced by black people in slavery as individuals and at times as small group strategies on the plantation. This was mostly in the form of work stoppages or slowdowns and other forms of milder protest that stopped short of outright defiance to the slave system.

Both King and Gandhi took their cues from Jesus whose admonition “Turn the other cheek,” had profound implications for a dispossessed people in first century Palestine. What King learned from Gandhi was the development of collective social strategies of mass protest by people, to impact a larger segment of the population, so as to reveal injustices and effect larger change. This means that this approach to freedom and social change also followed the rules of science in that 1) observations were made about the realities of racial discrimination and segregation in the South; 2) a hypothesis was formed about what strategies would be best used to dismantle the system of segregation, and thus nonviolence was chosen over physical violence which would culminate in the mass slaughter of people on both sides; 3) a prediction was made as to the results of the use of nonviolence versus violence 4) the experiments were carried out with mostly effective results and the rest is history. The cycle was repeated until “perfection” was achieved.

I should add that the scientific experimental dimensions of Dr. King’s strategies can be viewed in the difference between the results in Birmingham, Ala. versus those in Albany Ga. Dr. King states in his autobiography that in the 1961 Albany movement, if he had to do it all over again he would have focused on a single issue rather than take a general approach to dismantling segregation. The protest in Albany, in King’s words, was “very vague and should have focused on a single issue like integrating the buses or lunch counters.” Also the experiment in Albany did not work as planned, due in part to Chief Laurie Pritchett’s nonviolent strategies of taking a kinder, gentler, more clever approach to out-foxing King and his cohorts, by having someone pay his bond to get him out of jail to prevent him from continuing his protest and drawing more media attention. King also says, “When we planned our strategy for Birmingham months later, we spent many hours assessing Albany trying to learn from our errors. . . . And what we learned from our mistakes in Albany helped our later campaigns in other cities to be more effective. . . . We never scattered our efforts on a general attack on segregation, but focused upon specific symbolic objectives.”

The subsequent Birmingham campaign was considered a success. The Albany campaign was not nearly as successful but was not a failure. King says that while the movement did not achieve what it originally sought to achieve and they went home with a sense of defeat, thousands were added to the voting rolls in Albany which resulted in moderate gubernatorial candidate defeating a rabid segregationist. (p.168)

Because there was a spirit of openness and innovation in the movement, by analyzing and innovating micro strategies within the larger macro strategies and vice versa, the movement adapted to each new context. Because the emerging issues that were not part of the original equations of nonviolent protest in specific cities were modified to each new situation, success could be attained. While Albany would not be Birmingham – and later Chicago would be unlike any of the Southern cities – change and adaptation were always watchwords and hallmarks of the Civil Rights Movement.

Historian Oswald Spengler reminds us, in this book Decline of the West, that civilizations and organizations perish due to their inability to adapt new ideas and strategies. The disintegration of Rome, one of the greatest civilizations on planet earth, says Adrian Goldsworthy, Michael Grant and Edward Gibbon, was due in part to civil wars and its inability to assimilate its various ethnic minorities, which included the Alaric, the Goth and the Visigoths who eventually sacked Rome.

Another important aspect of the movement was King’s openness to new ideas from younger leaders. He did not follow the usual formula of allowing only the older more seasoned leaders to help make decisions. King and the movement harnessed the great younger minds like Wyatt T. Walker, James Bevel, Diane Nash and others, to lead with their own ideas.

The nonviolent movement was also open to other people and different strategies, such as the Freedom Riders and the sit-in movement designed to reach the same goal. The rise of other more militant factions in the struggle for freedom, in the 60s, also made the nonviolent movement more palatable.

There was no single formula or “magic bullet,” to use a term applied by Dr. Ehrlich. There was always what sociologists call the “independent variable,” the serendipitous aspects to life which can be the unexpected revelations of symmetrical systems that appear in asymmetrical forms. Military science teaches that even with the best laid and thought-out battle plans, the unexpected will occur which requires the necessary adaptive mechanisms to adjust to the new information and situation. In their book, “Complex Adaptive Systems,” John Miller and Scott Page remind us that social realities are often complex that require complex, simplified, interdisciplinary approaches to resolving problems.

Donald T. Philips’ book, “Martin Luther King Jr. on Leadership,” cites the following, which can be lessons for science and society in developing models of progressive change and innovation:

• Give credit where credit is due

• You must shun the narrow-mindedness that has been the source of your own and your organizations’ past afflictions.

• When faced with extreme situations your remedies must be extreme.

• People will work together and sacrifice if they understand clearly why and how the sacrifice will bring about positive change.

• Any real change in the status quo depends on continued creative action.

• There will always be agonizing setbacks with creative advances. Be tolerant of mistakes.

• Creative new endeavors bring people together, unify them, and keep them focused.

• In a new era there must be new thinking.

• Innovative actions may serve as unifying forces in any movement.


There are two more thoughts that I would like to observe about another aspect of innovation.

The experimental creative components are benchmarks of any innovative endeavor, be it science, art or social science. When the great Miles Davis was asked what the key to his music was, his answer was, “It’s simple. I play what’s not there.” I play what’s not on the music sheet.” In other words, as Einstein said, “Imagination can be more important than knowledge.” Or in the words of Karl Popper, “the substance of knowledge can be found in the absence of sources.”

Improvisation and Innovation contain elements of the Midrash, from a Hebraic/Jewish standpoint in reading scripture. This means that what is not said in the text is often just as important as the words in the text. We often read things by the words that guide and inform our reading and interpretation and trajectories of thought, but also important to understanding are the cultural, visual, social, sensory aspects of what is not said in the text. They are just as important in forming word pictures as is the text. Constantin Stanislavski says of acting that we must find the sensory entry points of each character, to get to what Robert DeNiro calls the clinical truths of each character which are not always written but must be surmised or conjectured and must be grasped through our sensory and intuitive apparatus. When we read the scripture, it’s not just words, but the moods, sights, sounds, colors, smells of the text that matter, that give us a more comprehensive scope of what is not spoken but intended. In my mind, words have weights and sounds, sentiments and sonority.

All innovation requires a calculus or equation that considers that which is there and that which is not there; a principle of complementarity of opposites which says that two opposing truths can be juxtaposed to find another truth, that the opposing factions need not cancel themselves out. We can follow the Hegelian structure of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. It also means in the words of physicist David Bohn that we engage in genuine dialogue, not monologue, in true conversation, not playing a game against each other – but in a mutual discovery, in compelling coaxial exchanges of transformational information. This means that the Cartesian formulas and structures of human reasoning where things follow the pattern of “either/or.” It’s either “this or that” rather than “this and that” as might be necessary for innovation and discovery.

Innovation is not only thinking but thinking about how we think, and questioning those patterns and our assumptive worlds around what I call the modal and tonal applications of knowledge. It may involve what William Miller and Langdon Morris call disruptive innovation in their book “Fourth Generation R and D.”

This spirit of innovation is deeply rooted in the spirit of freedom and the spirit of freedom is the spirit of America. That is why friends, one of the greatest tragedies in our time is summed up in a statement from the movie “A Bronx Tale,” that nothing in the world is worse than wasted talent. When the spirit of freedom is sequestered and the sources of innovative knowledge are consigned valued only from certain people and segments of the population and not derived from Americans as a whole, and there is a lack of hunger for competitive and cooperative knowledge, we suffer ignominious losses in quantum forms.

Don’t just use what’s there, use what’s not there. Look beyond where you are for material resources to be harnessed and exploited. Look beyond where you are for human resources that are filled with creative and innovative ideas that can make America a simmering potpourri, a creative montage that spawns their own surges and a momentum of knowledge that puts at bay those inertial forces that would waylay and fossilize our progressive transformation.

There are alternative visions; alternative paradigms and alternative people just waiting to be utilized. But we must dispel all fear and abandon the superficial categories that would keep us boxed in and isolated from each other. Leave no stone unturned and no avenue unexplored in the discovery and utilization knowledge and in the words of the poet Addison, go through fire and water and move heaven and earth. Know, in the words of the poet T.S. Eliot,  that every exit is an entrance and every entrance is an exit.

Finally, one of the blessings of the African-American experience has been the creative and ingenious ways that we have helped to shape America, in the spirit of creativity from science to the Civil Rights Movement. That movement still has rippling effects on the world today, well or ill, that have lifted our collective positional stance from Cro-Magnon to modern, in every manner.

Innovation is not just a gift endemic to business and science, but to all of life; to social science and social movements that give voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.  The God of creation is so innovative and so imaginative that things are changing all the time. The basis of our knowledge is made possible because of the variety of forms and substances, the variety of colors and textures that enable us to distinguish or differentiate one created thing from another. The foundation of our greatest tool, which is our mind, is our consciousness – our capacity to differentiate various life forms. We could not have consciousness without the capacity to distinguish the forms of life which God, or the intelligent design, has created. Innovation is the basis of creation and is the foundation of all life and human consciousness. You have a mind. Use it. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

The voices for new ideas that will bring about the social betterment of humanity echo from every hill and hamlet of our world today. The voices for new ideas that cry out from the lab and from those other places and spaces in our land are one great cacophony for the betterment of human kind. The spirit of innovation is the spirit of America. The spirit of innovation has always been the spirit of black America.

So let us move on in that spirit GE. Let us move on in that spirit. Every living person in this great country, open up your mind, fling wide the doors of discovery and risk-taking. Keep forging ahead, keep trying new things. Dare to do – and do the do! Don’t wait. It might be too late. Don’t wait. Now is the time as our competitors gain the global edge. Keep working and thinking. Keep trying and inventing. Never give up. Never give in until you have exhausted every avenue and every option; every idea and every structure; every form and every formula. Keep pressing on until the end, with that innovative spirit, so that once again America may take its place among the global leaders of industry, science and knowledge.

If you fail to plan you plan to fail so keep on keeping on until the prize has been won. Keep on keeping on and never give up. This is the spirit of innovation and this is the spirit of America – and of the American nonviolent movement for social change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *