The revolution continues
Q: Dorothy Height, the longtime leader of the National Council of Negro Women, died recently at age 98, prompting President Obama to honor her as "the only woman at the highest level of the civil rights movement." Do leaders of equal standing and notoriety exist today in any social movements? If so, who are the most successful? Has there been a change in the ways in which people seek social change?
Iconic leaders like Dorothy Height emerge through the fires of great causes. We came to know Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and other champions of justice through the epic struggle for civil rights in this nation.
Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem stood at the forefront of the women's rights movement. The global quest for human rights gave us Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Those leaders and others like them came to prominence in the middle of the 20th ventury, a time of great social change -- some would say upheaval. From the notorious Abbie Hoffman inciting students to violent protests against the Vietnam War to the wonkish Ralph Nader crusading against unsafe cars, the social movements of the last century promoted freedom, peace, individual rights and skepticism of large institutions, whether corporate or governmental.
By contrast, the first decade of the 21st Century has been a time curiously devoid of great social movements. Causes certainly exist to rally interest groups -- whether the Tea Party or immigration reform, abortion rights or pro-life advocates, people still come together to express their opinions, sometimes quite loudly. But to date, these causes have produced few iconic leaders whose names and faces symbolize are synonymous with their causes.
Some people say that the social movements of the 20th century are no longer necessary -- an African American is now president of the United States, a woman is Speaker of the House.
Do their achievements mean that "the revolution" is over? Certainly not, but to a large extent, the achievements of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi in winning high office symbolize the migration of social leadership from outside the circles of power to the innermost chambers, at least for some brief moment in history. To paraphrase a quote Nancy Pelosi often references, whether making history also makes progress remains to be seen.
Equally important, social networking is fast replacing social leadership as the means through which people learn about issues and voice their opinions. The impact of the Internet on movements and perceptions of leadership has changed the stakes considerably. With the 24/7 news cycle and the ability of every person in the world to make comments on any news story about any person, it's a wonder that any work gets done. Whether important work for social change and genuine social leadership can emerge from the cacophony of constant commentary and criticism remains to be seen.
Education about leadership is especially important in these days when fame and celebrity confer much greater status than true achievement.
I recall a moment about 10 years ago when the great Billie Jean King, another icon of the women's rights movement, visited Trinity with the Women's Sports Foundation. Many other top women athletes also came, including stars of the then-new WNBA. Our young Trinity athletes crowded around the famous basketball players, ignoring Billie Jean.
When I introduced them to her, they looked quizzical. Only then did I realize that the rising generation had no idea who she was, and that she was more responsible for their ability to play sports well than the celebrity players whose autographs they cherished.
Leaders who create change often do not get the credit they deserve from those whose later success is possible because the leaders put their lives on the line. Dorothy Height's passing has been an important opportunity to remind new generations that the freedoms and rights they enjoy today are a result of the sacrifice of those who preceded them.
For such freedoms and rights to remain strong, the rising generations must also heed the call for new leadership. Far from being over, the revolution continues each day.
Posted by: BOBill | May 10, 2010 8:40 AM
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