Leadership & The Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King and Ella Baker speaking to crowds of protesters during the Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King and Ella Baker – Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Source:http://bit.ly/2AXm7ha

King. Parks. Baker: Three Civil Rights Leaders, Three Practices

The first name, Martin Luther King, we all know and venerate. The second name is also familiar. Rosa Parks symbolized defiance. The third name, however, is not as well-known. Ella Baker played an integral, behind-the-scenes-role in the Civil Rights Movement for five decades.

Each played unique and critical roles. King as the firebrand, Parks as resister and Baker as activist.

Widely regarded as one of the most tireless, modest and wisest activists, Ms. Baker is remembered for saying: “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up the pieces or put together pieces of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

speaking at the Jeannette Rankin news conference, January 3, 1968. Ruby Dee at right.

Ella Baker speaking at the Jeannette Rankin news conference, January 3, 1968. Ruby Dee at right. (Jack Harris/AP Images.)

Some researchers argue that it was none other than Ella Baker who initiated the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). A group that would be credited for setting the agenda for much of the Civil Rights Movement, testing out how participatory democracy might actually work in real life.

It was here that Ms. Baker embraced the growing social movement known as “participatory democracy” where the emphasis rested on participation and enlistment. The movement focused on grassroots involvement, minimized hierarchy and heralded a distaste for the charismatic, professional leadership emerging from a growing bureaucracy within the Civil Rights Movement.

King was a brilliant orator and beacon, however, participatory democracy called for direct action that would activate the public voice on a grassroots level. Dr. King would arrive to hold a rally and a press conference, and then needed to move quickly on to the next city. As social activist Howard Zinn noted, Baker and her colleagues took on the work that “famous men did not have the time to do”. They practiced self-leadership, traveling to small towns in the South and sitting for hours taking down the names, addresses, occupations and immediate money needs of people who looked to them for a different kind of leadership.

Change from Above and Below

So what do these three people, each a leader in their own right, have to teach us about leadership? They demonstrate the tension between hierarchy and heterarchy, a flat structure that does not require defined roles to operate within strict limits. In this configuration, people undertake leadership roles when necessary.

Popular opinion argues that Martin Luther King was the prime driving force – the leader perched atop the hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement. However, a compelling case can be made that the early activism of Rosa Parks and Ella Baker established the vital role of being change agents from within.

Ella Baker fused hierarchy and heterarchy by maintaining her presence in Dr. King’s inner circle, while simultaneously registering her skepticism of the leadership at the top of the movement, believing that change needed to come from the grassroots or it might not never happen. With internationally distributed photos depicting dogs attacking marchers and the fire hosing of protesters, change erupted as a result of these brave, grassroot protests.

Martin Luther King was gunned down on April 4, 1968. No doubt, he remains one of the world’s most powerful representatives for peaceful change. But while we still mourn his passing, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t die with him. All three, King, Parks and Baker, played integral roles and had their places in a movement that harnessed differing forms of leadership. Parks was noted for her grit: her mantra was that she was “tired of giving in”.

Demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington

Demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington. Carl T. Gossett Jr. The New York Times

Baker never gave in either, maintaining that leadership was a collective responsibility, which she characterized as “the nectar divine” – meaning that it was a celebration of diverse opinions that caused people to take action to advance the cause. For this, she was given the Swahili nickname “Fundi” meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. Ultimately, it was the collective action of the firebrand, the resister and the activist that inspired Civil Rights legislation.

Let’s hope that as 2018 progresses, all of our workplaces are more appreciative of not only their own unique “divine nectar” but the many differing forms of leadership that need to be embraced. It may be more work to take on, but the rewards are there for those who care to listen, to question and to take action.