Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 21, 1995

Writer Challenges Students To Tap Into Potential For Leadership

By Mike Field

     Writer and reporter Juan Williams urged his audience to
resist distractions and look for the "leadership within" at the
third annual Martin Luther King Convocation, held last Thursday
on the Homewood campus.
     In a 45-minute speech full of exhortations aimed primarily
at his student listeners, the Washington Post columnist and
political reporter decried the recent tendency to portray King as
"this milquetoast man" who has little bearing on current
     Referring to advertisements that appear each February in
national magazines such as Ebony, Time and Newsweek, Williams
ridiculed what he says is Madison Avenue's attempt to co-opt
King's legacy for commercial purposes.
     "You've all seen those ads. They're the ones that have a
picture of Dr. King with the words 'The Dream Still Lives' over
the top, then down at the bottom they're trying to sell
hamburgers," Williams said. "Corporate America is transforming a
passionate revolutionary into a warm and fuzzy teddy bear that we
can all put our arms around. Blacks, whites, Asians and
Hispanics, he's made out to be some big, fuzzy uncle to us all."
     Williams urged his audience not to allow popular perceptions
to smother the controversy inherent in Dr. King's message. "Let
me tell you: corporate America's not selling what I'm buying," he
     Williams won national acclaim for his book Eyes on the
Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. The best-selling
companion piece to the PBS series of the same name was widely
praised for its coherent vision of the most important decade of
the modern civil rights movement. It is an era closely tied to
Martin Luther King's legacy as the primary spokesman and symbol
of the movement.
     Calling the closing years of the 20th century "an age of
cynicism and distraction," Williams reminded his audience that
the King holiday is not simply "a holiday for black folks" but a
profoundly important reminder of the possibilities of change.
"What is the King holiday about? It's about standing up and
transforming society nonviolently," he said.
     Williams spoke as part of a solemn and at times moving
ceremony held in Homewood's Shriver Hall. The evening started
with a replay of King's "I have been to the mountaintop" speech
made the night before his assassination. As the speech echoed
through the sparsely filled hall, a single interpreter for the
deaf signed the speech on an otherwise unoccupied stage. Then a
formal procession of student leaders, senior administrators
including President William C. Richardson, Williams and others
took the stage for what proved to be a nearly two-hour program.
     A diverse audience of about 60 students, staff and faculty
gradually took up the spirit of the evening as a succession of
student leaders representing black, Asian, gay and Hispanic
campus organizations offered brief reflections on the meaning of
civil rights in the 1990s. Vocalist Martha Byrd Baker's stirring
a cappella rendition of a medley of civil rights songs was
greeted with prolonged applause. Later, Juan Williams received a
standing ovation for his remarks.
     Much of his speech focused on the need for leadership and
the tremendous pressures society exerts against it.
     "When I think of you at Hopkins I think of the leadership of
America of tomorrow," Williams told the students in the audience.
"You know one mistake commonly made is that people assume leaders
are born that way, that leadership is some kind of mark that is
identifiable from birth."
     In fact, leaders aren't born, they evolve, Williams said.
"In the case of Dr. King there was no such sign. It was something
he had to discover about himself. Something he had to discover
     In researching his book, Williams learned that King did not
go looking for the civil rights movement. Rather, it came to him.
And at first, he resisted.
     "When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her
seat on the bus, most of the names we now associate with the
civil rights movement were not involved," he said. "At that time
King was 25 years old and not involved in any way. In fact, he
would have been surprised if someone had told him he would soon
be the leader of the movement." 
     According to Williams, after Park's arrest leaders of the
nascent Montgomery, Ala., civil rights movement tried to organize
a one-day bus boycott in protest. "The first thing they did was
to call the most prominent black clergyman in town, the Reverend
Ralph Abernathy," Williams said. "But Abernathy said he already
had his hands full. He suggested they try the new minister in
town, the Reverend King."
     King's initial reaction, said Williams, was "not me." The
young clergyman--still at work on his doctorate--had a host of
reasons not to get involved. "His wife was pregnant, he was a new
minister in a large and important church that had previously
expressed some unhappiness when a former pastor had become
involved, and he was very, very busy," Williams said. "He told
the caller, 'It's not now for me. Call me later.'" The call ended
without a commitment from Dr. King.
     "Two hours later, [civil rights leader] E.B. Nixon called
back, just as King had requested," Williams said, to laughter.
"He told King that the next day about 400 people were coming to
his church to talk about a potential boycott. He suggested it
might appear unseemly if Dr. King were not to attend this meeting
at his own church." 
     King's leadership role was not sought after, said Williams.
Rather, it was thrust upon him. "His story tells us that there is
a leadership potential that burns within us. There are people who
would say to you, don't bother. They will tell you to sit down.
In fact, they would love for you to go to sleep, to leave it to
the demagogues. That's why it is so important to remember King.
He came to understand that he was not a born leader, that he was
carried up by a wave of history, that he had to find the
leadership within him."
     The potential to lead, said Williams, is the personal lesson
he hoped his audience would take to heart.
     "King was the one who took the stand," he said. "And that is
what is incumbent upon all of you. It's an age of utter
distraction that will take you away from the reality of dealing
with race in America. But the spirit is within us all. America is
hungry for your leadership. Be the people who understand the
history; don't listen to those who will tell you to go to sleep."

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