A Civil Rights Tour and lesson in Leadership

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.


Today is April 30, 2015. Last Saturday my neighborhood was rocked by two shootings. The first occurred at a funeral, leaving one man dead. The second followed later that evening, leaving a neighborhood fearful. Monday afternoon I left for a trip. By Tuesday evening my wife called to say there was yet another set of shootings. One person was dead and two others critically wounded. All of this took place within blocks of where I live and where I call home.

Like many of you, I also spent much of my time this week watching the news as unrest unfolded in Baltimore.

In 1992 I, a young youth pastor, took a group to South Central LA, 45 days after the Rodney King riots. One of the biggest surprises of that trip was how my experience in South Central had very little to do with how the media reported about the events. The vast majority of the people we met were hard working folks, who simply wanted to be treated like human beings. Time has certainly impacted my memory of that trip, but I do not recall meeting any “thugs.”

Today, if you listen to some the media, it becomes easy to believe that urban neighborhoods are filled with vandals, thugs, thieves, and looters. As someone who lives in one such neighborhood I can tell you this isn’t the whole story. It is true that urban communities can erupt. Rarely is this random; often people are just sick and tired of being ignored, marginalized, and brutalized by powers and systems they have no control over.

One of the reasons why I have spent 20+ years at DOOR is that I am convinced that people of faith need to hear the other stories. Stories of forgiveness and reconciliation, stories of faith in spite of the odds, stories of family values that go deeper and wider than our mainstream faith traditions are comfortable with.

One effective way of moving beyond a world of violence, fear, stereotyping, and racism is to simply start spending time with each other; hearing stories, laughing together, crying together, working for change together, and just plain being together. DOOR does this well. We bring outsiders into urban communities, not because urban people need rescuing or saving, but because we need to save each other. We need to build bridges of understanding, mutuality, and empathy. This kind of transformation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It demands physical presence.

When we don’t take the time to know each other, hear each other, or sympathize with each other, then spaces are created for anger and violence.

In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul takes about a savior who emptied himself, who became one of us. Maybe this is what our country needs more of, people who are willing to empty themselves. To know each other’s struggles and frustrations. To stand together against injustice and dehumanization. To become part of each other.