Jan 21, 2008

Martin Luther King and Leadership

One of my goals is to visit all of the Presidential Libraries. I may write more about them at a later time. When I visit, I also try to take in any significant historical sites that may be nearby.

In Atlanta, Georgia, nearby the Jimmy Carter Library, only a couple of miles away as the crow flies, is the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and Memorial Site. On my last trip to Atlanta, I led a leadership lesson comparing the leadership of Dr. King and President Carter. The purpose of the lesson was not to be critical of either, but to simply challenge growing leaders to consider what leadership qualities lead to accomplishment and positive change.

For the purposes of this lesson, we just considered the effectiveness of Carter's leadership as President as it compared to the leadership of Martin Luther King (MLK) as civil rights leader. It is important to point out that today, the Carter Center is one of the most effective organizations solving problems of poverty and disease in countries around the world. Carter's leadership as a former President, with respect to poverty, is an example to all former Presidents. Sadly, his contemporary political interjections continue to harm and overshadow the magnificent work of the Carter Center.

As for Carter, it is often said that his Presidency was the "unfinished presidency," which is a nice way of saying that he wasn't successful in what he set out to do as President. The Carter Library demonstrates this with exhibits of good ideas, many of which have still not been accomplished, i.e. a realistic energy policy and a containment of Islamic terrorism. You leave the presidential wing sensing this lack of accomplishment. Fortunately, a new exhibit demonstrating the work of the Carter Center with poverty and waterborne disease is uplifting and inspirational.

But there is not, and will never be, a Jimmy Carter Holiday. Today is Martin Luther King's birthday, so I thought I would post a bit on his leadership.

Coretta Scott King who died in 2006, is now laid next to Dr. King at the King Center

When visiting the King Center, it is interesting to note that the events most known in his life occurred 100 years after the Civil War. Last fall, I included some Atlanta Civil War sites in my tour.
Atlanta was burned to the ground by General Sherman during the War and there are markers all around relating to that battle. Not far from the King Center is the Oakland Cemetery, which contains one of the largest Confederate Soldier burial grounds, pictured here.

I sat for a while, pondering the loss of life in that war. Among many thoughts going through my head was - was it worth it? Meaning, was it really worth laying down your life to basically protect an economic system that relied so heavily on slavery? Its a bit disturbing that even today there are some who feel like it was. I considered the great destruction and pain and suffering and it seemed like such a waste. The love of money is the root of this evil, the root of many evils that lead to the Civil War.

One hundred years later, many of those evils still presided over the law, leading to the Civil Rights Movement and the necessary leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lessons are often learned terribly slow.

It is an interesting comparison, Jimmy Carter, a US President, and MLK, a citizen leader. Who was the more capable leader? One had the office of the Presidency, a world stage and unlimited funds (while he was the POTUS.) The other, a baptist preacher with no legal office and no money.

A pictorial wall of the major events of MLK's life.

A trip through both museums reveals much about each leader. MLK was a leader of great accomplishment, whose legacy is still inspiring others to learn and to allow and make progress. Bus after bus pulled up to the museum, unloading passengers from different backgrounds and ethnicities. The King Museum is not fancy and relatively small; a bit run down I thought. But in just a couple of small rooms, his story and legacy are well told.

This is the key to the hotel room MLK was staying in when he was assassinated.

MLK's personal Bible

MLK's church, Ebeneezer Baptist Church stands next to his memorial.

One leaves the MLK Center quiet, in deep thought and retrospection... and inspired about what can be accomplished with sacrifice and a wise approach to leadership.

Leadership can be defined as "influence, nothing more nothing less." MLK had incredible influence. He was a great leader because he influenced change in a positive and long lasting way. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he refused to run for political office and he led his followers in non-violent approach which forced the country to take notice.

Great leaders are often considered great because they hold to a basic principle to accomplish their goals. I believe that if MLK had not approached these issues with a non-violent philosophy, or had he been elected to some public office, he would not be celebrated today with a holiday or a monument or a museum. He would likely be buried in Oakland Cemetery with a fancy tombstone and be just another spot on the tour map.

And no-one would have today off.

While there is much more progress to be made in the area of civil rights and social justice, MLK's accomplishments do not stand as unfinished or unsuccessful. His life completed with a solid legacy and clear purpose.

My favorite MLK speech is the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. While the content is important, this speech moves me because of its context in MLK's life. The speech would be the final speech ever given by King. With a careful read and a historical perspective, I can't help but wonder if he somehow sensed that his life or influence would soon come to an end. It is the perfect final address. The speech itself summarizes his accomplishments and gives a time-line of the movement up to that point. He also gives warnings and guidance for those who would continue on, and he gives reminders of the importance of the non-violent approach. He ends the speech with these words:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!" - Martin Luther King, Jr.

He said those words on April 3, 1968 in Memphis. He was assassinated the very next day, April 4, 1968. These are the words of a great leader who finished well.

You can read or listen to this speech here: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm


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