Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – A Leader’s Leader

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The nation is preparing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which reached its apogee with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech. As I look out over the political, social and cultural landscape of our beloved country, the United States of America, I am reminded of Dr. King’s leadership of a movement. Though this young man was tried, tested, and indeed seared by the fires of hatred and bigotry, King was made of metal to withstand it all. This leader of a movement came through, as pure gold. He was tempered in the fire and molded into a leader who would move this nation toward a more just and free society for all people.

After all the speeches have been made, and all the sermons have been preached, and all the prayers have been prayed, and all the testimonials have been testified, and all the kudos and blessings have been offered and echoed by a great variety of people and leaders, there is one fundamental fact that must not be forgotten. King, as a true and gifted leader, made possible many of the grand achievements in civil and human rights that we celebrate today. King was essentially a leader’s leader. He led from out front, and he also led from behind. In this manner he intentionally synergized, nurtured, challenged and cultivated other leaders, facilitating them in using their gifts for greater good in the movement.

Thus it is true that part of King’s genius and gifts were the manner in which he selflessly and generously empowered others – those who were younger, older gifted leaders, those with great minds and bold spirits. King was a mentor, encouraging others to have a hand in shaping the non-violent movement for social change, its tenets and strategies, principles and practices. The fruits of their combined intellect still has universal impact around the globe.

We must not forget the other leaders who surrounded, supported and even at times led and inspired King. It is a roll call of giants: The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. James Bevel, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. James Lawson,  Rev. Jesse Douglas Sr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Rev. Jesse Jackson, U. S. Rep. John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Forman, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, Rev. Al Sampson, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. C. T. Vivian,  Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, Rev. Hosea Williams, Rev. Andy Young and that stellar list of other prescient leaders, sit-in students, freedom-riders, members of SNCC, NAACP, young and old, from the north and south, east and west, black and white, male and female – all who gave their hearts and souls to the struggle. This list goes on.

The movement had many working parts and different groups within the larger movement had their own unique identities. They strategically and tactically operated in multiple ways, at various times, which not infrequently created tension between them. Dr. King was largely considered the symbolic leader – if not the actual, hands-on leader. He was the “go to guy” whose voice, power and presence ultimately gave moral sway and momentum to the movement’s aims and objectives. Therefore Dr. King was able to forge synthesis among the factions.

It is undeniable that Dr. King’s brand of leadership made the difference. It was leadership that allowed for a coalescence of centralized authority with decentralized components, to maximize effectiveness. It is leadership of this quality that we need more of in this country today. Leadership that does not claim itself as the only authority, or the “onliest one” that can say or do something of value for the cause. Leadership that recognizes others who can also contribute to that cause in a meaningful way. Leadership that has not desensitized itself to the needs of the poor and the “have-nots,” or the “need mores,” on the middle ground. Leadership that is not overly enamored by the blessings of the rich and the needs of the “have mores.” Leadership that does not wane or waver amid the foils of unflinching opposition. Leadership baptized in the wells of human suffering. Leadership not anesthetized to the travesties and agonies of the human condition.

Several characteristics of King’s leadership were key.  One essential quality is vision. True leaders need a vision of where they want to lead the people and how they want to get to their destination, while allowing for needed adjustments and re-direction.  Leaders often pay a price for having vision, but leaders must always focus on where God is leading them.

Mind you, every detail of that vision is not always present from the start, for there are discoveries that are learned and added along the journey. After all, the very essence of faith is to look out as far as one can see and then step out into the unknown. Moses, in starting out from Egypt, had a mind for where God would lead the people, through him. While the movement was out of Egypt to the Promised Land every detail of the vision was not yet revealed. Leaders with a vision understand that God grants provisions to augment the divine plan for the journey.

Dr. King had a vision that inspired others to participate, by using their gifts, to bring that vision to reality. That vision was deeply rooted in the foresight of this nation’s founding fathers; the hopes and dreams of those who had been denied their freedoms; the disenfranchised and oppressed; and all others who cherish these high ideals and had a mind and a will to sacrifice and work for liberty, justice and freedom for all.

The second quality of a great leader is moral courage to bring the vision into being. And this is usually the tough part. It is one thing to see things, but another thing to do things. The iron will, temerity, resolve, perseverance and moral courage must be brought to bear on the matter. Like a sculptor who has a grand vision of what he will quarry and craft from stone, the leader must use the tools at hand to begin the arduous work of chiseling, and bring into existence with his hands and other hands the images he has envisioned. It takes courage to work despite those who are opposing the work.  Nehemiah showed courage in rebuilding the Wall of Jerusalem.

Courage allows leaders to keep the vision before the people, despite the people of limited vision who wish to domesticate and the limit the vision. Courage means breathing new life into the vision for those who have become weary and fatigued by the catalogue of work that must be sustained, over long periods of time, and through inclement “weather” and “changing seasons” and all manner and forms of inertia that can easily kill the vision and create entropy and atrophy among the visionaries and the people. Moral courage is standing firm and tall amid the various forms of opposition that will come at midnight and noon day, to stymie the great work that God has set before the people. Dr. King and others in the movement had great moral courage and physical bravery to put their lives on the line each day for a cause that would make the people better and make America greater overall.

Moral courage also means having the strength to allow other leaders to make key decisions. To get deserved credit. To contribute the necessary sacrifices to help the cause. It means sharing and promoting the light of others, rather than allowing the too-human perils of vanity, self-promotion, or self-aggrandizing ego to smother and suffocate the light of other leaders, at the expense of the movement.

A third quality of a great leader is compassion. You feel me? A lingering question that can be asked today is, do our leaders actually feel what we feel? Have they ever known the pangs of hunger and the thorns of rejection? Have they ever experienced the kind of persecution that comes with being a people in exile, living the exilic dislocation as the marginalized and alienated?

Compassion is the bridge to other peoples pain and suffering. Although he came from a middle class family, Dr. King understood the reach of poverty and the perils and disaffection it creates. He understood poverty as a form of violence that ravaged the human body, heart, mind and soul.  He experienced an empathy and sympathy for those in privation which quickened his compassion and fuelled his resolve to heal the people’s pain.

Sometimes leaders are burned out and develop what one writer called, “compassion fatigue.” They have given all that they can give. Their cups runneth over, and they have not been thoroughly replenished. They expend themselves in the daily round of demanding work that takes all that they have and thus they can no longer feel the pain of those they lead. When asked what he did in his down time, Bishop Desmond Tutu replied, “I sleep.” He understood that the demands of this work require rest, and that such rest is ultimately sacred. Quiet rest often nurtures the spirit of compassion among leaders, amid the myriad demands of life-extracting toil. Although weary in the work, Dr. King was never weary of the work. He kept, as part of his core values, the compassion which made him ever-sensitive and attentive to those in need. His ongoing compassion for the sanitation workers is what led him to Memphis for the final days of his life and prompted his readiness to plan for the Poor Peoples campaign in Washington that coming summer.

I cannot possibly name all of the other qualities of Dr. King’s leadership. They include humility, charity, generosity, hard work in motivating and organizing, and humor. Lewis Baldwin, Donald T. Philips, Michael Eric Dyson and others have done a great service in spelling those qualities out to us. But if there is anything that we should remember this weekend it should not simply be the speech that he gave that day, but the man who spoke life and love to America that day; not simply what he had but what he gave in terms of sacrificing all that he had; not only what he premised but what he promised and how he kept them to the very end of his life.

In a recent Time Magazine article Jon Meacham reminds us that King too was a founding father. He was one of the greatest leaders of the past century. He paid the ultimate price with his own blood, and we should never forget the true meaning of his leadership. We should remember how greatly that vein of leadership is needed today to move America forward. We look forward to the speeches that will be given on next Saturday, but we also look ahead to the movement greatly inspired by Dr. King’s leadership that will prompt other younger leaders to rise to the fore. That will continue to herald peace, prosperity, equality social justice and freedom in a country that still values those ideals.



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