Meeting An Inspiration

January 27, 2022

I spoke to audiences twice over the last two weeks, as we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  One talk focused on the leadership lessons that could be learned from Dr. King’s leadership of the civil rights movement in our country. Let me highlight just a few of those leadership qualities he exhibited.

  1. Principles- Fundamental in Dr. King’s message was the simple resolve that all people should be treated fairly and justly under our country’s Constitution and laws. A simple concept but one that our nation still struggles with today.
  2. Vision- He articulated his vision with clarity and passion. Again, his idea was simplistic. He wanted the country to live up to the elegantly enumerated values in the Declaration of Independence. “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….” 
  3. Courage- He faced the viciousness of a system that had previously enslaved other humans and, still during his lifetime, legally treated them as second-class citizens.
  4. Perseverance- Dr. King continued to pursue those noble goals in the face of jail, death threats, and organized opposition at every level of society, including the highest levels of government.

We celebrate his life for these qualities and making the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of justice for all Americans and other downtrodden peoples.

An Early Activist 

The other speech focused on my growing up in the deep South during the times of Dr. King’s leadership.  I was in my pre-teen and teenage years, and one of the highlights of my life was meeting Dr. King when I was just 13 years old. That meeting would put me on a course that would change my life. That same year, I joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr. King, and became an active volunteer.

The following year, I would join SCLC’s SCOPE project (Summer Community Organization and Political Education). The project placed primarily white college students in predominantly black areas in Southern states to work with local volunteers to help lead voter registration drives. 

I was teamed up with a guy from the University of Michigan, Will, and we hit it off right away. We both had the same first name, William.  He was an Eagle Scout, and I was a Boy Scout, hoping to become an Eagle Scout one day. Most importantly, Will had a car, and at age 14, I had just gotten my restricted driver’s license. Will would ride shotgun and read the map, letting me drive over the dusty dirt roads of Orangeburg County, SC getting people to come down to the county courthouse and register to vote.

There were only two days for registration, August 2nd and 3rd, and we were very successful. There was a long line of people to register on both days. Three county registrars processed over 500 people on day one. On day two, THERE WAS ONLY ONE REGISTRAR!  The county clerk said one guy was sick, and the other had a cow in a ditch, but we all knew this was straight-up voter suppression to keep the number of Black voters down. 

Going To Jail

We staged an impromptu sit-in at the courthouse at closing time to protest this injustice! Fifty-one of us were arrested for trespassing on government property, and I spent the night in the Orangeburg County Jail. A month later, I would join 12 other African Americans who were integrating what had been all-white Orangeburg High School.

The point? This past week, voting rights were headline stories across the country.  A particular local story resonated; one Georgia county is closing six of its seven polling sites and consolidating at one location. Press reports state that the move will primarily affect “poor and marginalized people.”

To be clear, I believe that the vote should be secure and that only people who are eligible to vote should vote only once. Yet voting is a foundational constitutional right that people have died for, and it should be made as easy as possible for all who are eligible. We should all be vigilant of efforts to restrict or take away that privilege. Freedom is not free!


“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by human beings for breaking down injustice….”

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.