Martin Luther King at the podium of the Concord Hotel, Kiamesha Lake, New York, March 25 1968. Credit: Rabbinical Assembly Archives, New York. All rights reserved.
Ten days before he was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. answered questions from the audience at the old Concord Hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains. It was his final public appearance before he arrived in Memphis to deliver the words that seemed to presage his own assassination: “I have been to the mountaintop,” he said, “and though I may not get there with you, we as a people will get to the Promised Land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The Concord was located just down the road from where I live in the “Borscht Belt” of Sullivan County—the place where Jewish comedians from Danny Kaye to Jerry Seinfeld honed their skills and now the site of a shiny new casino. King wasn’t upstate for the slot machines or the jokes of course; he was there to speak about leadership at a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly—an annual convention of orthodox Jewish leaders—though he was introduced by the radical Rabbi Dr Abraham Joshua Heschel who was celebrating his sixtieth birthday.
In his opening remarks Heschel spoke about the need for a particular kind of leader in the struggle for justice, freedom and equality:
“Where does moral leadership in America come from today? The politicians are astute, the establishment is proud and the market place is busy. Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel?”
In the wide ranging question-and-answer session that followed, members of the audience probed King on who he actually ‘represented’ in the black community, how racism and anti-Semitism were connected, whether activists should seek alliances with members of the ‘establishment,’ how issues like war and poverty intersect, and how he navigated the different tactics of nonviolence and Black Power—all issues that resonate just as loudly in politics and social activism today.
Heschel answered his own question by calling King “a voice, a vision and a way,” though even in the 1960s this overestimated the influence of a single individual. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people ask ‘what would King do if he was still alive’ or ‘who’s the next Martin Luther King.’ These questions are invidious. There was only one, and he was killed fifty years ago today. New leaders are all around us if we have the foresight to see them, but they may not fit a standard template or occupy positions of formal power.
Think of Emma Gonzalez from Parkland High School in Florida for example, who electrified the crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue during the March For Our Lives in Washington DC last week, or Rio de Janeiro councilor Marielle Franco who was murdered in Brazil on March 14, or the many leaders of Black Lives Matter, or the hundreds of thousands of less famous examples that you could name in your own communities.
We can’t clone leaders and we shouldn’t try, but we can encourage and protect them from co-option and attacks. Against that background it’s more useful to ask what kind of leader was Martin Luther King, what kept him from being silenced or captured by vested interests, and what conditions encouraged his remarkable personal example—all things that we can learn from more broadly. What is it that distinguishes visionaries and change agents from the parade of overpaid administrators that pass for leaders in most government positions, political parties, businesses and charities today?
I’d start with authenticity and moral courage, which are difficult to describe but you know them when you see them—or rather when you feel them. In the few times I’ve encountered visionary leaders that’s how they’ve come across, as people who combine all forms of intelligence into one and strive to ‘be the change they want to see.’ It’s an emotional connection as well as one of strategy or politics. These are leaders who have something that you and I don’t, and who use it to inspire courageous action among large numbers of other people.
Inspiration creates waves of change that go way beyond a particular policy or party platform or incremental reforms. King had that quality. So did nonviolence trainer and theorist Gene Sharp who Timothy Gee remembered recently on openDemocracy. Sharp inspired large-scale nonviolent uprisings the world over but he never lost his sense of humility and grounding, his open mind, his willingness to listen, and his commitment to make time for others however famous he became or however ‘unimportant’ they might be.
Sharp, King and other civil rights leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker represent the mirror image of the fakes and faux radicals who rise to the top in most areas of life today. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd gave a perfect description of such people’s in-authenticity when describing ex-Trump spokesman Anthony ‘The Mooch’ Scaramucci: “a self-promoter extraordinaire and master salesman who doesn’t mind pushing a bad product—and probably sees it as more fun.”
By contrast—and here’s the second important marker—visionary leaders are deadly serious about accountability—the willingness to hold yourself responsible for your actions and be held to account by others, even if you outrank them. Any movement that wants to achieve large-scale change has to motivate a great body of people into action, so leaders have to be willing to share power rather than accumulating it to themselves.
That’s one of the lessons learned by the current iteration of King’s Poor People’s Campaign led by Reverends William J. Barber and Liz Theoharis, which has adopted a more decentralized and distributed leadership model. It’s the opposite of current realities in which leaders spend more time avoiding accountability than embracing it, especially if it comes from the bottom up or the outside in.
Behind every institutional scandal is a failure in accountability, when individuals or groups of leaders look the other way, bow to pressure, accept financial inducements or cover up mistakes. Their moral clarity and courage fails them at crucial moments, and the higher you rise in a hierarchy the stronger the temptations become. That’s because the costs of falling are that much greater.
In a 2016 article in the Journal of Management Studies called “Why the Assholes are Winning,” Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer describes how proximity to wealth and power can lead to “moral rationalization and decoupling” when the boundaries between honesty and deceit, altruism and self interest are seemingly dissolved. That’s a lesson that business figures like Mark Zuckerberg still have to learn. Visionary leaders accept it and act accordingly.
Accountability is also a key to my third marker of leadership which is self-sacrifice. Prototypical leaders are everywhere, but few of them make it to positions of formal power and influence, and many of those who do are muzzled or co-opted along the way through a process of elite capture. The reasons are pretty obvious, especially in times of rising precarity and repression when the risks of speaking out are so much higher.
“You have a choice. You can be an insider or an outsider. Outsiders can say what they want but people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: they don’t criticize other insiders.”
Visionary leaders find ways through these dilemmas by accepting the costs of that outsider status but maintaining various kinds of dialogue and interaction with those on the inside of mainstream institutions—much as King did with President Johnson and his Administration in the 1960s. That’s why such examples are instructive; they show how the trend towards co-option can be countermanded through a mix of continuous self-reflection, external accountability, intellectual clarity, sacrifice and moral courage.
Self-sacrifice is important because leadership positions (even informal ones) bring with them potential personal benefits which can act as another platform for co-option—prizes and awards, foundation grants, seats on corporate boards, power over staff and supporters, and access to the revolving doors of the establishment. Setting these things aside in order to stay focused on the mission of a movement and honor the democratic structures of decision-making and accountability requires a willingness to say no to these temptations—just as King did when he turned over his Nobel Peace Prize money to the civil rights movement.
An unbroken line stretches from before King to his oldest granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, who also spoke at the March For Our Lives, but such leaders remain the exception rather than the rule. Closing that gap is partly a matter of structures and training and incentives—or at least more security and protection since so many of them have been targeted or killed—but mostly an issue of moral courage, which is something that exists inside each one of us but is normally suppressed.
Goodness knows we need many more such people to help us find our way out of the mess we’ve created for ourselves. Where are all the leaders? Just as Heschel said 50 years ago, “The politicians are astute, the establishment is proud and the market place is busy.” We can look to others for inspiration and example, but if we really want to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King we should look to ourselves.