One Act of Leadership is Love
For some of you, it has been a while since I checked in with you. For others, this is my first opportunity to check in with you.
- How are you doing?
- How are you doing personally?
- How are you doing professionally?
- What do you need from me as you continue to lead into and through times of uncertainty?
As you are deciding how to answer my questions, I want to commend you, again, on your work in leading through the Covid pandemic and through the racial unrest in your community. As I continue to pray for you and for your leadership, my question remains, how are you doing?
Care and Concern
Besides my genuine care and concern for you, I have a specific reason for checking in with you.
I thought of you last week when I read of a group of mothers from Williamson County, Tennessee called Moms for Liberty. They are trying to shut down the use of specific curriculum in their public schools. It is interesting that the curriculum includes an autobiography by Ruby Bridges. As a 6-year-old, Bridges became an international symbol of the civil rights movement. In September of 1960, she was one of the first Black children to integrate an elementary school in New Orleans.
The Moms for Liberty argue that her book, Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story, contains too many truths that cut too close. The mothers find the story objectionable, citing a description of a “large crowd of angry white people who didn’t want Black children in a white school.” They say that’s too negative a rendering of a moment that is well documented in books, film, and photography.
Ruby Bridges and I are the same age.
We entered the first grade in the same year. I’m sure the integration of a white school made all the major news outlets across our county, but I don’t remember ever hearing about Ruby Bridges until I was in college. I wonder if those mothers have truly seen the pictures from that year-long struggle over integration? Have they avoided the photographs of White women with their necks jutted out and their mouths screaming as though their world was coming to an end? One of the protesters carried a sign that read: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school.” When I see video clips and listen to the cries of the crowd, one chant that can be heard is “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.”
When I read that news story, I thought of you and how you must continually keep the story of Ruby Bridges and others in front of the people in your community. You know that the issue is not the integration of schools, but the dignity of human beings.
I once heard Jane Elliot say, “People who are racist aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant. And the answer to ignorance is education.” If that is true, why would anyone want to keep the stories from being told?
Jane Elliot has had a tremendous impact on me, my understanding of racism, and how to address it. In April 1968, she was a third-grade teacher in the small town of Riceville, Iowa. On the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she felt compelled to shift her lesson plans. She decided to teach her young white students about discrimination by telling the children that brown-eyed people were superior to their blue-eyed peers. She watched as the students turned on each other. Then, the next day, she reversed the script.
Notice she invited the children of her third-grade class into an exercise that highlighted the arbitrary and irrational basis of prejudice. Sixty-one years after Ruby Bridges and fifty-three years after Martin Luther King, Jr., we are still wrestling with the same arbitrary and irrational basis for prejudice. Why wouldn’t we want to teach our children, our neighbors, our friends, and those who are entrusted to our care about the love of God and dignity of all persons?
In a recent interview (early 2020), I heard her say, “There has been a big increase in racism in America over the past five years. We were making progress in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, even in the ’90s, and then a black man in the White House made a whole lot of white folks really angry because that said plainly to everyone, ‘A black man can get there and do it and do it well. Now if that’s true, then maybe my white skin doesn’t automatically make me superior.’ And it knocked the socks off everyone who believed in the rightness of whiteness.”
Race is a Social Concept
She also said, “Many people don’t recognize that race is a social concept. Race isn’t biological. Race does not run in our DNA. Race is how somebody somewhere hundreds of years ago decided to categorize the human race.”
Michele L. Norris, a writer for the Washington Post writes, “We do our children no favors if we only feed them a steady diet of fairy tales that sidestep life’s complexities.” She also writes that we do long-term harm when we sanitize our history in the name of protecting our children from feeling bad about themselves. “What’s really at work is adults trying to outrun a sense of shame.”
Courageous leadership does not sigh a big sigh of relief when every crisis passes over. Courageous leadership steps into the crisis, discovers where God is at work, and leads people into the redemptive and transformative qualities of God’s love and grace.
Let’s take the story of Ruby Bridges for example. Instead of reacting out of fear and protectionism, face the fear and respond by pointing where God’s love and grace are at work. What are the redemptive qualities of the story?
Consider the following:
- The teacher, Barbara Henry, who instructed Ruby day after day in a classroom. She and Ruby were the only two present when all the other students were pulled out by their parents. Barbara Henry gave herself unselfishly to the education of one little girl.
- The psychiatrist, Robert Coles, who counseled Ruby’s parents in the midst of death threats. He also met with Ruby on a regular basis to help her face the adults who lined the sidewalk to the school building shouting words of hatred. Robert Coles gave himself unselfishly to the emotional and mental health of Ruby and her family.
- The 6-year-old Ruby Bridges herself. She faced that crowd every day for a year. Her parents lost their jobs. They relied on the goodness of others to get through the crisis. Ruby once sent a letter to Santa Claus saying all she wanted for Christmas was for her father to get his job back.
- Ruby’s parents who taught and modelled the love and grace of God. One day, while being escorted into the school building, Ruby stopped and said something. It looked like she was speaking to the angry crowd. Later when asked what she said, she replied, “I was praying for them.” “What did you pray for?” She replied, “What my mommy and daddy taught me to pray.” “And what was that?” Ruby replied, “I prayed, ‘Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.’”
Wow! What a legacy. In the midst of such anger and hatred, it is not hard to find God’s love and grace. It seems to me that the Moms for Liberty were looking out more for themselves than for their children. Because of their own fear and anxiety, they missed an opportunity to model for their children the way of love and grace.
Learn the Full Story
Fredrick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Our children need to learn the full story. The story includes both haters and helpers. Instead of sweeping away an uncomfortable history, tell the truth so that years from now our schools will have eradicated the forces of racial bias and white supremacy that have shaped every aspect of American life.
So, do you understand why I thought of you when I read the story of the Moms for Liberty? You are in the position to do something about the racism that pervades our daily lives and the systems in which we participate and from which we benefit.
This is what you can do as a leader.
Develop relationships of trust with children, youth, and young adults.
- Become a mentor. Encourage them to go to college where not everyone looks like them and shares their political, sociological, or religious views. Encourage them to study abroad or to participate in mission teams in other countries where they can experience the achievements and beauty of non-white cultures.
- Become a reader in your local school. Take the book, The Story of Ruby Bridges, by Robert Coles, and read to the class. Her story and other books like it are inspirational. They shape the minds, hearts, and imaginations of all of us. They also help design a future without racism. There are many more books from which to choose. See the list of children’s books at the end of this blog. Or go to www.transformingmission.org/blog and search for “Overcoming Racism” and “Putting an End to Racism.”
- Buy several copies of The Story of Ruby Bridges and donate copies to your local school, your local public library, and to your church library. Take time to educate children. Teach them to be the leaders that will shape the future of our country.
- There are many more books from which to choose. See a list of several children’s books at the end of this blog.
Develop relationships of trust with the adults entrusted to your care.
- Lead a book study. Use Ruby Bridges book, Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story alongside the Bible. Point out the experiences of God’s grace in Ruby’s story.
- Encourage parents to read the story of Ruby Bridges to their children. Provide the books and the opportunity to gather parents together for conversation. Your leadership will be invaluable in shaping the values of parents and children.
- Encourage parents, all adults for that matter, to read a book regarding racism over the next 6 months. Again, provide the books and the opportunity to gather for conversation. Model for your adults. Let them experience how their lives can shape the future of our country.
Who You Are is How You Lead
Friends, who you are is how you lead. This week, where will you experience God at work and how will you lead people into discovering God’s love and grace? What one step will you take toward changing the world by putting an end to racism?
Now that the Capitol Area North District and Capitol Area South District are under the leadership of one district superintendent, we have added new people to our team. When you need and want assistance, remember that Jill Philipp and Diana Keefer are available to assist you. You can reach Jill at email@example.com or Diana at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Cook, Sara Thomas, and I are also with you on your leadership journey. When we can be of encouragement or help, contact us at email@example.com. We are ready to assist you with insights and resources in becoming a courageous leader.
Resources for Children
Below are the children’s resources I mentioned above:
- Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, by Gwendolyn Hooks. This highlights the accomplishments of Vivien Thomas, a pioneer in the world of surgical technology.
- Look What Brown Can Do! by T. Marie Harris. Called a “modern black history book,” Look What Brown Can Do! teaches readers about inspiring contributions to black history and encourages kids to dream big.
- Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage, by Allan Schroeder. This is the story of Harlem Renaissance figure Florence Mills, who was known for her talents in singing, dancing, and comedy.
- I Have A Dream, by Martin Luther King, Jr. This is Dr. King’s speech about the importance of equality.
- Coretta Scott, by Ntozake Shange. This is a book about Coretta Scott King, the civil rights activist and leader who married Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly and Winifred Conkling. This book introduces the black women whose hard work and perseverance advanced the space race.
- Bippity Bop Barbershop, by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley. The book highlights the role barbershops play in black culture, and what it’s like to conquer your fears as a child.
- Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, by Vashti Harrison. This is a book of a variety of stories of black women who never backed down in the face of adversity.
- The Story of Ruby Bridges, by Robert Coles. This book tells the story of Ruby Bridges, who became the first African-American child to integrate a white southern elementary school.
- I, Too, Am America, Langston Hughes. This is an illustrated version of Langston Hughes’ famous poem “I, Too, Am America.
- Mae Among the Stars, Roda Ahmed. This is the story of the first African American woman in space. This book shares her dreams as a child, her hard work and ultimately, her success in and out of space.
- Rosa, Nikki Giovanni. This book is about the bravery and resilience of Rosa Parks as she refused to give up her bus seat in Alabama, playing an important role in the civil rights movement.
For additional resources, explore “Overcoming Racism.” In that post you will find many books from which to choose.
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. Education brings freedom, and Jesus promises that the truth will set us free!