I recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee with some friends and family. My guide that day was a dear friend, Dr. Gloria Baxter. Dr. Baxter has vivid memories of growing up in a segregated Memphis. As we absorbed the exhibits she would recall childhood memories that made the museum’s stories all the more real for me. For example, she recalled a black woman who her mother hired to iron their laundry once per week. Dr. Baxter, who is white, enjoyed playing with this woman’s children. As we read about Rosa Parks’ courageous stand on a bus in Montgomery, Dr. Baxter recalled riding a segregated bus in Memphis with her black playmates and their mother – in the back section for blacks – and refusing to sit with white strangers.
Acts of leadership are all around us. From the simple, innocent and courageous acts of a girl to the calculated risks undertaken by a president, it takes all of us to make the world a better place. And that is one of the lessons I learned from my museum visit.
Obviously President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr played pivotal roles in the movement to end segregation but there were others. Take for example, Reverend Frank Dukes. Mr. Dukes was a student at Miles College in Alabama in the early 60s and led a boycott of segregated businesses in Birmingham. I’ve included a photograph of a museum panel that captures a statement he made recalling the struggle. His statement succinctly demonstrates core principles of leadership – removing self from role to develop relationships with others.
Leading others through particularly difficult issues requires interactions and developing relationships, particularly with those resistant to change and probably you and who you represent. Rev. Dukes had the courage to remove self from role – to view the racial slurs as data that indicated where the “white power structure” men were at. He didn’t take the insults personally. He seemed to have confidence he could help whites embrace desegregation if he was patient, persistent and gracious in the face of hatred and resistance to change. He kept his eye on the goal and was able to endure the racial slurs. And it worked. Slowly but surely his relationships with the whites strengthened, which opened doors to social adaptation and helped the later efforts of Dr. King.
There are no national holidays that remind us to reflect upon Reverend Frank Duke’s role in the war on hatred. But without him and the leadership of others the equality we enjoy today would not exist. As we think about the immense challenges facing the planet let us remember those that led in the fight for race equality. Let us remember that tackling tough adaptive challenges may require one or two Dr. Kings but most certainly many Dr. Baxters and Rev. Dukes – all kinds of people dancing on the edge of their formal or informal authority for the greater good.