My job requires me to spend a lot of time thinking about leadership. I oversee a ministry with programs, staff, and board members in five states. Keeping everyone one the same page while providing the space to be unique and creative is a constant challenge. Last week I was afforded an opportunity to join with a group of collogues on a Civil Rights tour through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I have spent the better part of the past two decades reading, reflecting on, and educating myself about diversity, race, and civil rights. This was my first time going to the locations where history was made in the 1950’s and 60’s.
We visited Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park) the staging ground for many demonstrations and catty corner from 16th Street Baptist Church the site of September 15, 1963 bombing where four young children were murdered. I walked through the Freedom Ride Museum and heard the stories of the riders, who prior to joining the ride, filled out their wills. They were riding for change and knew that the price might be their lives. In Montgomery I heard the story of Rosa Parks, a strong yet humble women whose single act of defiance, refusing to give up her seat to a white man, set in motion a set of events that would change the south (and north) forever.
In Selma we visited Brown Chapel and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Later we heard firsthand accounts of the Bloody Sunday, the turnaround Tuesday, and the Selma to Montgomery marches.
In Mississippi Roscoe Jones sat with us and shared his story. In 1964 he was friends with James Chaney, one of three civil rights leaders who were murdered. Their story was retold in the movie Mississippi Burning. Roscoe was supposed to be the fourth person in the car. Events conspired in such a way that he was unable to join them. As a result Roscoe lived and his friends were brutally murdered by the KKK.
This tour shook my soul at many levels. Two things continue to stand out for me. The first was the age of the leaders and many of the protestors. They were young. Somewhere along my journey I began to assume that mature, wise, and prophetic leadership was something that only came with time. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and a host of other peers (foot-soldiers) were all in their 20’s and 30’s. They stepped up and led. They were not limited by their youth.
Second, these leaders were not part of the legitimized and elected power structures of the day. They had no access to these structures. Their legitimacy came from the grassroots. They prophetically spoke truth to power and in the end the official powers of the day began to make space for these young, brave, grassroots empowered leaders.
The work and mission of the Civil Rights leaders is far from over. This “ism’s” of prejudice and judgment are still alive and well.
There are lesson that need to be remembered. First, it is the youth who will lead the way. Those of us who are older need to find the humility to make way for leaders who are young and reckless. Second, change, real change, will always emerge from the bottom. Those of us who are in legitimized leadership positions would do well to remember this.