What Memphis Reminded Me

What Memphis Reminded Me

Yesterday brought back strong memories. I can still see the face of the television newscaster fighting back tears and announcing, “Dr. Martin Luther King is dead.” Just 10.5 miles from my home in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, April 4, 1968.

50 years later, I’m standing about 300 yards from the Lorraine Motel balcony where he was shot. Thousands of us have returned to that spot to remember that giant and that day. The speakers were amazing. Jesse Jackson, James Lawson, Sister Peace, William Barber and others walked us through the history of a civil rights movement that changed this nation. They pushed us toward the ballot box to continue the fight for change.

At 6:01 PM the bells began to toll and the crowd hushed. They recognized that at that very moment 50 years ago a shot rang out and King crumbled on the balcony. Moments later the mood changed as Al Green sang songs that lifted our spirits and launched us from that place, determined to keep the dream alive.

I announced that this week’s blog title would be, “ What Happened to My Hymns?” I’ll get to that next week. Being in that historic gathering yesterday in Memphis reminded me of a number of things. Some important. Some, not so much. Here are a few.

There is nothing quite like the Black Church

There was one thing that most of the civil rights leaders past and present had in common. They were children of the black church. Even the ceremony itself reminded me of the magic of that institution. At times like a lecture. At times like a revival.  The music, the preachers, the fraternities, the speeches, the emotion, community, the choirs. Then and now there’s nothing quite like it.

We don’t realize how good the Aeolians are!

Where did that come from? Well, I was listening to the national HBCU mass choir sing, “Beams of Heaven” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and it occurred to me that I was missing something.  What was it?  The Aeolians. The HBCU mass choir was fine and twice the size, but not even close!  It reminded me again why the Oakwood University Aeolians are the 2017 Choir of the World. I’m afraid we take them for granted.

The more things change, the more….they don’t! 

Dr. King was in Memphis in 1968 supporting city sanitation workers. They were underpaid, disrespected, and the targets of systematic racism. King died supporting workers. 50 years later, Memphis is 64% black but 88% of senior managers in the city are white. Those are plantation percentages. The problems of crime and poverty and unemployment plague the city, but the downtown area is a growing shrine to gentrification. There’s work to do.

Movements are messy, and leaders are flawed. 

King was no choir boy. The leaders of the civil rights movement- male and female- were a mixed bag of energy, ideas, courage, and cowardice.  They were deeply flawed, but like the early Christian church they turned their world upside down. If you’re looking for a perfect movement, you’ll be waiting.

Friends come in all colors 

The bells tolled at 6:01 pm. It was the most important moment of the rally yesterday. Ironically, the speaker at that time was not a black pastor or politician, but a white Roman Catholic priest, Michael Pflegar. He has been an important player in the black community for years in Chicago. He wasn’t a token, he earned his spot.

The crowd began to boo when the mayor of Memphis and governor of Tennessee-both white- began to speak.  On the surface it seemed like a racial statement. But the jeers turned immediately to cheers when congressman Steve Cohen followed them. He has been a warrior of a representative for the black community-and he is white. You might not want to identify the friends or enemies of a movement by the color of their skin.

Our ancestors did more with less 

I was struck by the fact that most of the “builders” on the platform were in their golden years. They were recognized for the colleges, businesses, fraternities, and service organizations they had sacrificed to build. I’m afraid that sacrifice is a profanity to many in my world. We usually worship in churches and study in universities that our parents and grandparents built at great sacrifice. Of course, there is the problem of debt and the declining dollar. But the greater problem is a black community that is at times all talk and no action.

The power for change is still the power of God 

To the natural eye, the answers to the problems in the black community are obvious: economic investment, quality education, voter registration, etc. Those are powerful and legitimate answers. But James Lawson and the senior statesmen of the movement reminded us yesterday, that while we are pursuing those legitimate resources, the real answer comes, “not by might, nor by power” but by God’s spirit and power. Sound silly? I’d rather do it the way King did it than the way the scoffers and complainers aren’t doing it!

So those are a few of my thoughts about King and the movement. What do you think?

The Question Most Leaders Are Afraid To Ask

The Question Most Leaders Are Afraid to Ask

It’s like Kryptonite to otherwise bold leaders. (Kryptonite: A radioactive material that made Superman seek personal counseling.) This question is harder for most leaders than the perplexing questions of the ages. Questions like:

  • What is truth?
  • How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?
  • Should vegetarians eat animal crackers?
  • If God sneezes, what do you say?
  • If you are bald, what hair color do you put on your driver’s license?

No, this question is much harder. Want to hear it? Here it goes. I’m convinced that the question most leaders are afraid to ask is, How Am I Doing? It’s a hard question because it forces us to take a pause from our evaluation of others and take an honest look at ourselves. How Am I Doing?

Now, to get an honest answer to that question, you have to involve someone outside of yourself. Which brings up the real problem with that frightening question- Accountability. There are a number of different but closely related definitions of accountability, but let’s go with this one.  Accountability is the willingness to hear who we are, where we are, and what we are doing. How am I doing? That is the accountability question.

What Is Your Real Condition?

Once or twice a year I get a complete physical. It’s not my favorite thing to do but it’s pretty close to the most important thing I do. After my physical, my primary physician sits down and goes over my numbers with me. Cholesterol. Blood pressure. PSA. He gives me a count….a count. Those numbers tell me how healthy I really am. Not how I feel about my health, but what’s actually happening with my health.

And in essence that is what accountability does. It gives you a count. It lets you know where you really are.  It pushes you to look at your numbers.  It forces you to face your real condition. Without these real numbers and this honest objective evaluation, we could think everything is fine, not realizing we are seriously ill. As it is with the body, so it is with leadership. We need honest evaluation.

What Are You Really Accomplishing?

It’s easy for leaders to lose focus. To get distracted from their primary responsibility or mission. It’s cliché, but it’s true- there is a temptation to work hard but not smart. This is often the case because there is no regular point of evaluation that reminds the leaders of their roles and responsibilities.

It seems to me that this idea of evaluation and accountability is easier for a younger generation to accept. For many leaders my age, evaluations have been punitive in the past and not redemptive, or at least that’s the perception. Past experiences notwithstanding, if you are not regularly asking the accountability question you might be doing a good work but not the right work. You could be doing a lot of things, but not the main thing.

Who Are Your Real Friends?

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The text speaks of the need for fellowship and community and accountability for us to reach our true potential. It also implies that the friction that comes from honest communication can be our salvation. That’s a real friend. Someone who will risk offending or upsetting us, to tell us the truth about us. This is the element that’s missing from the lives of many potentially great leaders. Honest, redemptive accountability. Someone or something that will be truthful with you- about you.

And frankly it gets harder to hear an honest voice the higher you ascend on the leadership ladder. I speak often about the leadership “echo chamber.”  It’s when the only voices you hear are familiar voices. The more “important” you become, the more people you have around you who have a vested interest in you staying where you are. It might not be good for you but it’s great for them!

We need honest and effective evaluation and accountability. It reveals our real condition, it evaluates what we are really accomplishing, and it lets us know who our real friends are.

What do you think? Do you have friends like that? Are you being effectively and honestly evaluated at the job or church?