Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

What are Leaders Without the People?

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In heaping praises and accolades on great leaders of our time, we often fail to recognize the everyday people who help to make these leaders great. All this week we will observe the mighty work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of other leaders in the civil and human rights movements. However, when the truth is told, it is clear that those leaders could never have achieved greatness without the stalwart efforts of people at ground level.

It was these unnamed people who placed themselves on the front lines of the struggle for freedom, justice and equality in America and who thereby validated and drew attention to the leadership. The people are, therefore, the foundation of every significant movement. Without them, the leaders merely grasp at straws, shadow box their own images, and are devoid of the elan – the panache – that is vital to making real change towards human progress in human history. On that great day 50 years ago, Dr. King and so many other great leaders occupied the podium under the Lincoln Monument, but would these leaders have been there without the masses that were gathered by the thousands – encircling the reflecting pool – and beyond?

Leaders make movements and movements of people make leaders, so where would freedom be without the masses of marchers? Where would justice be without the sacrifices of the untold thousands who sang and fought, and sat and wrote, and read and spoke, and served and bled, and gave their all that we might have all?

This is true of other movements as well. What was Teddy Roosevelt without the everyday soldiers called his Rough Riders? Patton without his Panthers, the African-Americans of the 761st Tank Battalion? The women’s movement. The labor movement. The populist movement, swirling through famine, by way of fallow land – in the parched, barren and broken dust bowls of America. The gay rights movement. None of these would have evolved without the people; the motley masses of the disparate and desperate, the broken and bitter, the forlorn needing respite. With a hope in their hearts, they still believed they could collectively change their grapes of wrath into cherished vintages of human freedom. It’s the leaders, yes! But it’s also the people who make America. The people who move America. The people who make the leaders who move America!

So, leaders are important, but so are the people! Let us never forget that it is those who consented to be led that we must also honor in our celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. For without the people who risked it all to show up on that day – people of every hue and profession – there would have been no march. Without those who consent to be led, there would be no movement!

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