If You Stood At Lincoln's Feet
THE leader must do three things: Set a standard. Point a direction. And handle hostility.
The third point, says management analyst Harry Levinson, may surprise us. We would like to think that pointing to a better goal would be sufficient to motivate the troops, the class, the organization, or the community. Is not a superior standard self-evidently to be preferred - equality of opportunity, for example, over inequality of opportunity? Alas, not so.
A teacher friend recently told me of her early years in the classroom in an inner-city school. She held to standards or performance against the resistance of students and faculty. The entire community appeared intent on its own degradation. She felt increasingly isolated. After a half dozen years, perceiving herself more a thorn than a balm, she quit. She was not prepared, however, for the students' grief at her going: "You were the only one," one protested, "who cared."
A quarter of a million people are expected in Washington Aug. 28 to observe the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s great "I have a dream" speech. King set a direction and a standard.
Imagine, if you will, King's task 30 years ago. The night before, he was writing the speech. Some of its themes were from a speech he gave in a contest when he was 15 years old, some were from the Bible, from the sung literature of his people ... and the cadences, the brief form of the speech, were from Lincoln. Think of standing there on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, with that enormous homely hulk seated as if in perpetual contemplation of justice behind you. A sea of black faces is looking up. If you are King you have asked them to be patient, to suffer the indignities of nonviolence. You begin with understatement: "I am not unmindful that some of you come here out of excessive trials and tribulation." Then the rhetorical turns: "Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality."
This was 1963. This was before racism defeated Barry Goldwater and before the magnificent moment of Lyndon Johnson when he poured the force of his presidency into civil rights, before the tormented megalomania of Vietnam.
The standard: more suffering for freedom. "You have been the veterans of creative suffering," King told his people. "Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina ... go back to the slums and ghettos of the northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can, and will, be changed."
King's vision: Universal unity. "That day when all of God's children - black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants - will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.' "
Now, we know that King was assassinated, during that turbulent American decade that also saw urban riots, blissed-out Woodstock, and the loss of two Kennedy brothers. We know too that King was less than perfect; he borrowed too much from others on a university thesis; he wandered from the marital code. But he was shot not for his deeds, but for his dream.
This school year thousands of young people, white and Asian and black, will recite his speech; it alone rivals Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in popularity. How ironic that these leaders' martyrdoms only lend their addresses a more splendid visibility.
If you stood at Lincoln's feet to speak, would a quarter of a million people come? And what would you say?
Against hostility - the mass mortal resistance to progress - innocency is the best defense. What is the motive? Why do you want to arouse the conscience of this class, this community? What is working within you?
Societies often want to be rid of their conscience-speakers. These may be abrasive. They interrupt. They mock our conformity. They may be more flawed than we: Who are they to talk?
And yet they have the only lasting word.