THE BLOG
12/11/2014 10:00 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Leaderless Movements Are Impossible to Maintain

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Question: What were the historical contributions of E.D. Nixon, Joseph McNeil, James Farmer, William Anderson, and Fred Shuttlesworth?

Answer: They were among the leaders who organized civil right movements in Montgomery (1955), Greensboro (1960), Freedom Rides (1961), Albany (1962), and Birmingham (1963) respectively.

It is no accident that the name Martin Luther King Jr. does not appear in the answer. With the exception of the proposed Poor People's Campaign in 1968, King did not initiate the landmark civil right efforts of the 1960s that transformed the nation.

The historical civil rights movement was not a systematic process but rather a collection of organic efforts by local leadership to eradicate the oppressive conditions in their communities. Even the March on Washington, where King told the nation about his "dream" was the brainchild of labor organizer A. Phillip Randolph.

By 1963, it was understood that the moral crusade alone could not remove millions of Negroes from second-class citizenship. Hence, the name "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

The 1960s were a unique decade, unprecedented in U.S. history. Beginning in 1960, for nine consecutive years, there was a major grass roots movement that worked separately, but also in conjunction to make the nation better.

Often times the leadership of the aforementioned movements had to catch up with the growing momentum that was created organically. The leadership scheduled the original bus boycott in Montgomery for a single day -- it ultimately lasted more than a year.

These historical moments bear repeating at this juncture of the ongoing American experiment.

History is always ready and willing to provide the present with its lessons learned. It has an undeniable cyclical trait that makes its contribution invaluable.

But to exhume those lessons requires more than the cursory glance of convenience. This latter observation appears to be the unfortunate approach that is undermining the recent protest spawned by the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri and Eric Garner in New York.

Void of context, police standoffs in Ferguson do not make it Birmingham 1963 nor does recent protest in Berkeley make for an apt comparison to the Free Speech Movement that occurred there 50 years ago.

If such comparisons were based solely on passion, the contrast is legitimate. But passion is where any semblance between the protests today and the civil rights and free speech demonstrations comes to an abrupt end.

If organic movements emanating from the grassroots are to possess any lasting quality, it can ill-afford to be leaderless. That is not to suggest some self-appointed blowhard co-opt these efforts for their own self-aggrandizement.

Leadership need not be a single individual, but a clear and concise message that participants can agree that also carries the power of moral persuasion.

Assuming discomfort is the prerequisite for change, it is crucial for the protestors to embrace a message that serve as an effective counter to those who march with different motives so that their legitimate concerns are not defined by violence and looting.

Though the civil rights movement was committed to the ethos of nonviolence, there were times when violence broke out. The leadership of King and others were positioned to point out that those actions were incongruent with the reasons they organized the protest.

The violence and looting that occurred as a result of the recent protest provided comfort for those unable or unwilling to understand the root cause of the anger, defining it by the negative associations they witnessed on television and social media.

Moreover, a leaderless movement cannot answer the "so what" or "why" questions. Without the ability to articulate the reasons for the demonstrations, the protests have only the power of its own efforts to sustain it. Rarely, if ever, does a movement, under those circumstances, carry the momentum to endure long enough to see the change it desires.

The history of leaderless movements invariably leads to frustration and failure, serving only as the latest prototype for Macbeth's cynical observation:

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."