This op-ed was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
One year ago, masses of Americans took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd and the killings of countless others. A multiracial coalition protested to make their voices heard by those in power and express their aspiration for a fair and inclusive democracy. In response, GOP leaders in 34 states are rushing to pass anti-protest legislation, counter to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections of the right to assemble and free speech.
The U.S. needs more moral leaders. Moral leadership includes virtue, courage, integrity, empathy, imagination, wisdom and individuals who serve the common good while inviting others to join the movement. Moral leadership is inclusive and draws people in, rather than actively working to suppress their constitutional rights. As we witness monumental societal shifts, we educators work closely with the next generation of leaders and draw upon historical leadership lessons.
Young people, including college students, have long been the drivers of global social change. In the U.S., Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), alongside the Black church, were often the incubator of social movements, including the Civil Rights Movement. HBCU’s have contributed to many of our well-known historical and contemporary leaders. The current social movement we are witnessing is largely due to the seeds planted by past social movements.
The Civil Rights Movement provided examples of leadership and protest for the common good. It also reminded us that Interlocking systems of oppression require diverse forms of leadership. Although we tend to think of historic movement leaders as cut from a traditional mold of cisgender, heterosexual, charismatic, Christian men, yesterday’s leaders were more-diverse than traditionally acknowledged. The legacy and leadership of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is well known, but just as deserving of public recognition were key architects of the movement like Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker and countless others who did not fit the traditional clergy mold.
Bayard Rustin was a gay Black man and brilliant strategist. Ella Baker was a field worker for the NAACP who organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It was Ms. Baker who argued for a more-inclusive form of leadership that relied less on charismatic leaders.
Today’s movements have learned from past leadership’s strengths and limitations and evolved how we view leadership. The events of the past year were enacted by the disruption of the status quo and the work of movement organizers. In a recent survey of Morehouse College students, they reported that leaders must inspire others and need not share the same values as those they lead. Students view leadership through a more-inclusive lens than many of their most popular predecessors. Morehouse students report more “relatable,” accessible leaders, and they also consider leadership to be less unilateral and male-dominated. Students also identified local grassroots leaders, many of them women, who are making a difference on the national stage and in their personal lives.
While it may not be necessary for members of a movement to have shared values, they must develop a collective yet pluralistic identity, a shared epistemology guiding their pursuit of human knowledge, and a strategic approach.
Today’s leadership looks to perceive and engage others to build collective impact based on mutual respect and beyond the performative aspects of social media.
We are encouraged by our students, many of whom are currently and will be tomorrow’s leaders. While some politicians may be alarmed by social unrest and seek to repress the collective’s voices through new legislation, the spirit of standing for what is right and good will live and thrive in the ranks of today’s student leaders beyond the academy.