Grassroots To Symbol To Monument

In late 1961, Martin Luther King Jr sat down for an interview in England. He told his questioner that he had become a symbol. King knew he symbolized the movement he was leading. He was now the public face of nonviolent protest on behalf of equal rights for African-Americans.

I found this story for part of a Creative Conversation (my leadership coaching service) that I’m doing with a client. Martin Luther King Jr is a Thought Leader, and I’m guiding my client through King’s life–down his River–to find insights for an aspiring Thought Leader today.

It got me to thinking.

King’s public leadership began in the mid-1950s. That’s when he was a newly ordained Christian pastor with his first church congregation. That’s also when he worked on the Montgomery (AL) bus boycott that began with Rosa Parks’s famous refusal to switch seats. Within hours, King agreed to be a spokesperson for the gathering protest in the state capitol town of Alabama. This was King sprouting from the grassroots.

See that smile on King’s face in the first photo? That is in 1956 with his wife Coretta. It says more about the sparkling newness of King’s leadership than I can ever impart to you.

And then, just five short years later, we have the cover of Time Magazine. And then we have King acknowledging the mantle of symbol.

Scrutiny. Jealousies. Pressures. Loneliness. Fence-mending. Skyrocketing expectations, goals, and commitments. More zeros in the dollar signs. Amazing sacrifices and some amazing victories. All of them were part of the process that vaulted him onto magazine covers, television screens, book jackets, and speculation about a movie deal. From the grassroots to the symbol.

A price is paid, a cost exacted. For King heading forward in time, great things can happen, things he’d scarcely have dreamed of only a while ago, but they won’t come cheap.

A question for you: can a leader who becomes a symbol also become something else?

Can he or she become a caricature? An inspiration? A subject-matter-expert? A legend? An unapproachable? A treasure? A sell-out?

Another question for you: are you somewhat of a symbol to your followers? If I were you, I’d take my question very seriously. Don’t gloss it over, don’t speed past it because you think it doesn’t apply to you. You may be more symbolic than you realize.

One last thing–the third image, the stone statue.

For us, in 2019, Martin Luther King Jr is a monument. For many, he’s more of a monument than anything else. That’s almost inevitably true as we go farther from his own life and from the direct memories of those who knew him. They’ll know him as a monument first.

The monument of King in Washington DC is a tribute to his works and sacrifices. It is meant to honor him. People visit there and have a visual reminder–or an introduction–to King’s life.

But like the shift from grassroots to symbol, the move from symbol to monument carries a cost. A steep toll must be paid.

By its very nature the stone tells a story that is out of context, fixed and hardened and impervious to shaping and bending. The stone will go only a short way into the fuller and richer story. The color is gone, which King would say is especially notable; his blood was red. The sound is gone, too, and with this remarkable maker and giver of speeches, that’s a real absence. And the soul and faith can’t be felt, the most important features of all for such a humanly Christian witness.

Grassroots to symbol to monument. A River that deserves to be explored.