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What Civil Rights Trailblazers Taught About Leadership

The second in a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

When introduced to Nelson Mandela in 1994, former AARP CEO A. Barry Rand first noticed the “quiet dignity” that the revered former South Africa president exuded. In a statement upon Mandela’s death, Rand also described the beloved Madiba’s “strong conviction, inspiring confidence, the wisdom of his years and experiences, and a strong moral character.” Rand concluded, “He was a man of purpose at peace with who he was and willing to fight for his beliefs. My wife and I left that brief lunch determined to do more to help make the world a better place. He inspired us. He showed us how.”

Mandela’s model of leadership is the reason that President Barack Obama recently renamed his program for hundreds of emerging leaders the  Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. Obama made this announcement during the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in July.

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Young African leaders responding to President Barack Obama during a D.C. summit in July.

Few men or women can match Mandela’s stature. But a brief look at leadership in America’s civil rights movement also offers lessons and attributes of leadership that set examples for others. It was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Courage in the face of opposition is indeed essential, agreed the late Dorothy Height, who often shared from her experience of serving amid male-dominated  civil rights leadership. She once told a group of college women that the characteristic of courage and knowledge on issues are crucial traits of leadership, especially in a civil rights culture that remains largely male-dominated. “I never liked to be the weak lady. I do my homework. I get my homework done so I don’t feel inferior or unprepared,” Height, at age 97, told a group of Howard University students.

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“Women on the quest for equality can’t be wimpy or wishy-washy. … It is not self-serving. You are not there as Susie Q. You have a voice. I never failed to speak up.”

Yet another foremost quality of great leadership is vision, said Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson. Vision and inspiration are often exuded by people with a depth of historical knowledge, he indicates here: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

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But, there’s a key to drawing from these historic examples, former NAACP Chair Myrlie Evers-Williams explains. That key is spiritual leadership that comes from within, and it is not always so easily identified. In her invocation during the Obama’s second inauguration, Evers-Williams declared, “We invoke the prayers of our grandmothers who taught us to pray, ‘God make me a blessing.’ Let their spirit guide us as we claim the spirit of old: ‘There is something within me that holds the reins. There is something within me that banishes pain. There is something within me that I cannot explain. But, all I know, America, is there is something within.”


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