Monday, December 13, 2010

Final Manifestations: Reflections and Lessons Learned from the Southern Freedom Movement and Leadership

Burns (1978) tells the cynical story of a Frenchman sitting in a cafĂ© who hears a disturbance, runs to the window, and cries: “There goes the mob. I am their leader. I must follow them!” (Cited in Van Wart, 2008, p. 16). This is exactly the way I felt about leadership before attending the class on administrative leadership. But if anyone were to ask me today if leaders do make a difference, I will answer with an affirmative YES! Before this class, I was generally cynical about leadership and often view theory of leaderships as too prescriptive and less descriptive. I used to think that leadership cannot be taught or learned. At the end of the class, I come away with a deep understanding of leadership that makes a difference, my study of the Southern Freedom Movement made a deep impact on me emotionally and philosophically.

First of all I learnt that leaders must not only have goals, but must be willing to revisit their goals to ensure that those goals meet their aspirations and the aspirations of their followers. The Southern Freedom Movement leaderships from the very beginning knew what they want: freedom from Jim Crows laws, and they pursued that goal with an unparalleled zeal and commitment. They revisit their goals very often, identify those who support their goals and work with them. Invite those who oppose them to see those goals as not selfish goals but an aspiration common to all men. They couched these goals and speak of it in constitutional and religious terms that all men could relate to. In his letter from Birmingham jail, Dr. King states: “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights” (Dinar, n.d.). The leaders of the movement make this goal clearly discernible in terms and language everyone could understand. Here is how Dr. King portrays these goals in his speech at the Mall:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." (

In contrast the local southern leaders appealed to their tradition and culture which is not totally inclusive. Millions of white Southerners found champions in politicians such as Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, who both cultivated and exploited for political gain a deep anti-civil-rights sentiment. In his 1963 inaugural address, Wallace declared: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” (Sokol, 2008). These leaders never gave a clear and succinct picture of why the south should continue this tradition. As a result when whites were asked questions and prompted to defend segregation, they could not precisely say why segregation should prevail. They fell back on tradition, conservative values, and twisted constitutional logic and legalisms. A good example of this befuddlement occurred when students of Northview High School were asked directly about desegregation in February 1959 in one of the documentary we watched. When asked why he did not want black students at Northview, one of these students could only say “I don’t know why, I just don’t” (PBS, Eye on the Prize documentary). This I believe is the leadership deficit that plunged the Southern United States into turmoil and instability during the civil rights years.

The second important lesson we talked about in class is the crucial need for a definite process that will lead to the goals. The Southern Freedom Movement settled on Nonviolence, the white local leader chose force and brutality. One of the most interesting “recent perspectives on the struggle for civil rights in the South is David L. Chappell’s, “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow” (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) which stresses black prophetic religion as the decisive force in what was, in effect, a cultural battle. He points out that black southern leader were driven by a deep sense of realism, indeed a form of conservativism” (cited in Will Thomas, online blog, 2008). The Southern Freedom Movement also learned a lot from other movement before them, particularly from Mahtma Gandhi’s struggle for India’s independence from Great Britain. Between these two rich sources, the leaders of the Southern Freedom Movement picked up Nonviolence and the use of religious symbols, songs and imageries. In one of the Hope interviews we watched, Bernice Johnson Reagon, spoke of the impromptu nature of the songs. They sing deep from their hearts and the passion they would have used to react in violence against segregation they concentrated in songs, marches, bus boycotts all non violent. Dr. King eloquently expressed the importance of process to the struggle in these words:

“I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate
neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the
black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent
protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church,
the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this
philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am
convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white
brothers dismiss as "rabble rousers" and "outside agitators" those of us who
employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent
efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace
and security in black nationalist ideologies--a development that would
inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare” (Dinar, n.d., ¶ 22)
Another crucial lesson I learned from the Southern Freedom Movement is the unity of purpose between the leaders and the followers. Those who follow Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy et al. do so because they deeply believe in their convictions and genuineness of purpose. In contrast, the local southern white elected leaders were being led by the mobs. They are like the Frenchman in the cynical story I referred to in paragraph one. They are in it, because of the perquisite of the office. They ran for office on the platform of segregation not because they genuinely believe that blacks were inferior, (at least not all of them), but because that was the only message they thought would win the election for them. As Jason Sokol (2008) suggests “Many whites denounced the “Civil Wrongs Bill,” holding that such federal laws imperiled their own rights. They clung to the notion that rights were finite, and that as blacks gained freedom, whites must suffer a loss of their own liberties. On the precarious seesaw of Southern race relations, whites thought they would plummet if blacks ascended”

Another discovery I made with the Southern Freedom Movement is the level of planning and strategies required for a successful movement. Protests do not just happen by accidents. We watched in the documentaries weeks and months of planning before the event took place. Dr. King painted a picture on the planning that goes into a non violent movement demonstration as follows: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community… On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation... Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's economic community... As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us…We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the byproduct of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change…Then it occurred to us that Birmingham's mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day” (Dinar, n.d.).

The march on Washington was also meticulously planned in detail: “Operating out of a tiny office in Harlem, Rustin and his staff had only two months to plan a massive mobilization. Money was raised by the sale of buttons for the march at 25 cents apiece, and thousands of people sent in small cash contributions. The staff tackled the difficult logistics of transportation, publicity, and the marchers' health and safety. Attention to detail was crucial, for the planners believed that anything other than a peaceful, well-organized demonstration would damage the cause for which they would march” (CORE, n.d. ¶ 5). The only time the southern local leaders planned and have strategies that march the freedom movement, the protest and marches failed. The irony here is that the strategy was not force or brutality, it was non violent. As police chief of Albany, Georgia, Laurie Pritchett, nonviolent response to demonstrations, including the mass arrests of protesters and the jailing of Martin Luther King, Jr., was seen as an effective strategy in bringing the campaign to an end before the movement could secure any concrete gains. Pritchett’s nonviolent approach left an indelible imprint on King, who later wrote of his indignation at Pritchett’s use of ‘‘the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral ends of racial injustice’’ (King, 1964, p. 99).

The lessons I learned from this class is a need to have a core of value that transcends our self interest (Loeb, 2010). The class on administrative leadership have upended my long held notions of leadership and set me straight on transformative leadership. As public administrators, I ceased to look at my work as someone carrying out orders, from above. As Van Warts noted, “one of the enormous challenges of great leadership is the seamless blending of the more operational-managerial dimensions with the visionary leadership functions” (2008, p. 22). This is where I found myself at the end of class, ready to take up the challenge of leadership with purpose, vigor and passion. My work as a public defender is forever transformed by this experience.

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