As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of his death, when I think about the lessons of Medgar Evers the one word that comes to mind is "action." This man didn't live his life complaining about how bad things were as much as he spent his life taking tangible actions to fix the oppressive conditions of his community.
I remember when I met Ted Sorensen, former speech writer for JFK, who gave me this poem:
"Bull fight critics row on row... fill the enormous plaza full... but only one man is in the know... and he is the one who is fighting the bull."
Medgar Evers exemplified the words "civic engagement" by not being the critic sitting in the crowds, but jumping into the ring and fighting the bull! Just look at some examples:
• Medgar Evers didn't just complain about segregated gas stations. He became the president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) and helped to organize boycotts against the use of segregated gas stations.
• Medgar Evers didn't just complain about segregated colleges. He applied to the law school of the University of Mississippi and when he was rejected because of his race he became the NAACP's first field secretary for Mississippi. Then he used that position to fight for the enrollment of James Meredith to be the first African American enrolled in the University of Mississippi.
• Medgar Evers didn't just complain about an unfair, oppressive political system. He endured having Molotov cocktails thrown into his home, and eventually was shot and killed because he... among many other things... was a leading advocate in registering Negroes to vote and fight this system from within.
Medgar Evers was a true leader not just complaining about oppression... but fighting it by creating tangible solutions. He understood that real leadership isn't giving people a bitter pill of hopelessness to swallow, but it is providing the people a tangible and visible pathway towards success. He, like other leaders in the civil rights movement, understood that speeches to rouse the crowd only went so far... the real work began once you got the crowd excited and you were able to provide them with a tangible solution of action which they were motivated to believe would make a change if implemented.
I recently came across this article by Kevin Powell who expressed many complaints about the college that bears Medgar Evers namesake... Medgar Evers College. He talked about how Medgar Evers would be turning in his grave because, as he put it, this college was in its "ugliest chapter in its long history." He went on to complain about many of the negative events that have blackened the school's reputation throughout the printed press as well as the Internet. However, what I did not hear was how the negative issues and problems could be resolved. Mr. Powell stated that he sat on "numerous lectures there, and participated in more panels, conferences, and seminars than I can count there"... but my question is what has occurred since those times to actively resolve the problem? Did not Mr. Evers do more than sit on panels and attend conferences? Of course he did.
As I read through the complaints that Mr. Powell and other antagonists of the school administration have stated, I can't say I disagree with many of them. In fact, there are some perspectives of which we share full agreement. However, whether or not we agree or disagree is beyond the point; the crucial point is how can we use the principles demonstrated by the life of Medgar Evers to empower the school and community?
• There were many who complained about the way the school is being run... including Mr. Powell. However, I chose to become an active member of the board of Medgar Evers College so I could have more influence on the direction of the college that I love dearly... the Megar Evers way.
• There are many who complained about the decisions made by the current President who is preparing to step down...including Mr. Powell. However, I chose to be part of the process to hire the new college President and make sure that I was present at the public town hall meeting and private meetings so that I could ask the new candidates about their vision for the school. It was shocking to me that with as much criticism that Mr. Powell and other antagonists of the current President publicly stated that they were not at these open meetings. If he were alive, Medgar Evers would have been there.
• There were many who complained about the Carver Bank ATMs being taken out of Medgar Evers College... including Mr. Powell. I don't know why they were taken out, but I do know that I am planning a public housing financial literacy tour sponsored by Carver Bank and I am using my relationship with Medgar Evers College to have them partner with this tour. Hopefully this will assist in rebuilding the relationship with Medgar Evers College and Carver Bank. Is it a silver bullet answer? No. However, it goes much further than griping.
• There were many who complained about the treatment of Dr. Pryor... including Mr. Powell. Dr. Pryor is a friend and colleague of mine in the struggle to fight against the industrialized prison system. I am taking advice from Medgar Evers by continuing to reach out to my friend Dr. Pryor to work with those who are incarcerated, reduce recidivism, and bringing the ideas that I have in my work within prisons back to Medgar Evers College.
• Many people complained about the treatment of faculty. Well... now as a board member I can and will continue to make suggestions that we have designated times at board meetings for faculty to express their frustrations. I continue to meet with faculty and have discussions taking their complaints back to the administration to see if there is something tangible that can be done.
• Many people complained about the lack of the administration's engagement with the students. Learning from the lessons of Medgar Evers I am continuing my planning of student programming that can highlight the brilliance of Medgar Evers College students while also attempting to bridge the gap between the administration and the students.
• There were many complaints about the lack of transparency of the college's financial decisions. As a board member I and other board members were able to assist in the process of updating the financial statements of Medgar Evers College to ensure they were audited, up to date, as well as transparent for the sake of donors, community, and students.
I don't say these things to boast, but I do say these things because Medgar Evers promoted a legacy that needs to be more than a name on a building or a t-shirt. None of what I mentioned above are spectacular and everything that I and others have done can be done by many others. Medgar Evers promoted a lifestyle of activism that needs to be adhered to beyond simply providing "constructive criticism".
Many people may say that I am only being negative towards those who provide this constructive criticism. My answer to them is "What is constructive criticism if it isn't given to construct or reconstruct?" As one who has displayed elements of community leadership in the past, Mr. Powell's critique of "The Mess at Medgar" is missing the mark of what true leadership really is about. He is missing the mark of what Medgar Evers is about. So I invite Mr. Powell and all the antagonists of the school leadership to join in this process of supporting the efforts of the school and doing it "the Medgar Evers way." It is nice to have done speeches at the school, and I would love to have great speeches at the school continue by all who can inspire the students to greater heights. However, as opposed to publicly criticizing the way we treat the teachers, how about we have lunch and discuss some ideas of how to treat them better and provide tangible solutions to implement these ideas? Instead of publicly criticizing the elimination of the writing center, why don't you apply for membership on the board and look at the financial statements to determine how we can afford one? Instead of criticizing publicly about the lack of the strategic plan of the previous president, why don't you get involved in the selection of this next president to discuss personally with him/her...as I did...his/her strategic plan? Any ideas you have are welcomed and all are appreciated, but as long as you take the route of public criticizer as opposed to actually getting into the weeds to propose a solution, then in this instance I can't call you a leader. That goes for any other antagonist of the leadership of the college.
For Medgar Evers... he realized the fight was much larger than himself. It was never about ego or pride with him, but about the progress of his people. Sure... I don't get the headlines for joining the board and actually trying to work to improve the school as much as I would get from writing to chastise it, but it isn't about me... it is about students getting a good education.
I will let this article close with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that I feel exemplified the life of Medgar Evers because he was never about criticizing as much as he was about changing lives!
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." -Theodore Roosevelt