On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the lectern at Riverside Church in Manhattan to offer a penetrating critique of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Many of Dr. King’s allies had urged him to avoid a direct confrontation with the government on this issue. At the time of his remarks, the nation was two years into a conflict that still enjoyed strong support, despite its growing cost in American lives. A fragile civil rights coalition feared Dr. King’s words would deal a direct blow to the progress being made by the movement.
After much deliberation, Dr. King acted in a way that provides one of history’s great examples of honoring our values during times of great crisis. His remarks at Riverside Church would memorialize their significance, as Dr. King noted:
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice…a time comes when silence is betrayal…”
As I reflect today, the lessons of that moment in his leadership become more and more clear to me: Moral leadership is lonely; moral leadership has a high cost. I reached out to two of Columbus’ iconic, social sector leaders — Jerry Saunders of Africentric Personal Development Shop (APDS) and Bo Chilton of IMPACT Community Action — to learn how the example of Dr. King’s leadership impacts their work.
For Jerry Saunders, CEO of the APDS, Dr. King was a leader with whom he could relate.
“What we have in common is we’re both a preacher’s kid. My father is a minister and his father was a minister — both southern baptist,” Jerry says. “As I was coming up as a youngster, I followed Dr. King on television, I listened to him on the radio, I read his letters, I read books about him.
“The overall energy and leadership that he provided for the civil rights movement was obviously extremely important to me because I couldn’t understand this thing about race. I think there’s one race: the human race. And I think that Dr. King operated in that way. While his audience was mostly African Americans, his message was to everyone. He was advocating for people. For humanity.”
“While his audience was mostly African Americans, his message was to everyone. He was advocating for people. For humanity.”
Jerry also leads by example and has dedicated his life to the service of others. For 21 years, he has served as the CEO of APDS. In that time, he has helped to develop programming to combat substance abuse and domestic violence in an effort to strengthen families.
For Bo Chilton, CEO of IMPACT, Dr. King’s legacy extends beyond his famous speeches.
“The thing I appreciate and take away from the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is that he was a social justice warrior,” Bo says. “We often hold him up in the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from 1963, but what you need to be reminded of is that he went on living for an additional five years doing this work after that speech was delivered. There were a lot of things that he was doing in terms of protesting the war and lifting up poor people that weren’t as popular as the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. For me, it was really about advocacy for all people.”
“The thing I appreciate and take away from the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is that he was a social justice warrior.”
Inspired by Dr. King’s mission of advocacy, Bo now manages an organization that serves 25,000 people every year through a variety of poverty-fighting programs.
In far too many ways, the “true revolution of values” Dr. King’s leaders called on us to pursue hasn’t materialized. Too many young people are trapped in failing schools. Too much talent is underemployed. Too many families are unstably housed. Too much inequity is locked into the basic design of our communities. Make today a day of self-examination. Ask yourself what you’ve remained silent about. Ask yourself what you can do to begin to speak out. Then, act.