Will Campbell died earlier this summer. He was known as an eccentric Baptist preacher who fought fiercely for justice but was never comfortable with the conventional practices of churches. Campbell grew up “dirt poor” in rural southwest Mississippi and was the only white person present at the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Change that appears to come from isolated events — rousing speeches and mass rallies — actually is built on a foundation of leadership stretching back far into the past and with much work still to be done.
A decade before the famous March on Washington, which took place 50 years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregated public education to be unconstitutional. In the years before this 1954 decision, as the case made its way through lower courts, Campbell and some of his southern friends at Yale Divinity School lamented the fact that this decision would be made while they were away at school. Everything would be settled before they could get home to help with the transition, they thought. “Unfortunately, we were slightly off the mark,” he later said.
As the 1963 March on Washington is remembered, including Dr. King’s now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it is good to recall how change takes place — in the nation or in a congregation. Change that appears to come from isolated events — rousing speeches and mass rallies — actually is built on a foundation of leadership stretching back far into the past and with much work still to be done.
I call this “leadership lag time.” There is usually a major time delay from when a concern is first addressed to when change comes to fruition. Leaders must understand this truth. If not, they will be filled with discouragement and even despair, or they will keep trying one quick-fix solution and then another. Lasting change that transforms society and congregations takes a very long time.
The modern civil rights movement in the United States provides a powerful example of this truth. During the observance of the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, a panel discussion was broadcast on C-Span. One of the panelists, an African American World War II veteran, was asked, “Given all the continuing racial problems in the country after all these years, was the sacrifice by African American veterans worth it?” Without hesitation, the veteran responded, “Of course.” But he quickly went on to say, “You see, African Americans look at change a bit differently than others may. Whenever any progress is made, we know that it comes not from the actions of a few only but is made possible by generations before us who sacrificed while knowing they would never see the fruits of their labor.”
Shortly thereafter, I attended our daughter’s graduation at Millsaps College in Mississippi. As the names of graduates were called, one sounded familiar — Joseph Howard Meredith. As I watched him walk across the stage, I observed that the resemblance to his father was striking. I recalled that it had taken 23,000 troops to ensure that his father, James Meredith, was enrolled in the University of Mississippi in 1962. And I remembered what the World War II veteran had said. This young man’s accomplishment was built on more than his own efforts. It even went beyond the bravery of his father. It was built on the efforts of generations.
I also thought about that World War II veteran during the fortieth anniversary of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. One of the African American students who integrated the school told an interviewer about their fear in the face of angry mobs. Finally, when additional federal troops arrived, they were escorted up the steps of this huge and imposing building. Then the doors opened, and they walked in. She remembers entering the school, looking all around, and saying to herself, “I am standing where none of my people have ever stood before.” In that moment she knew that this giant step was based on more than her personal effort and courage. It rested on the labor of generations who never saw the rewards of their work.
Yes, as Will Campbell discovered and participants in the March on Washington fifty years ago knew well, lasting change is possible but usually not quickly. However, what sustains leaders in the midst of passing victories and setbacks is the knowledge that they are a part of God’s purpose. Church leaders who learn these lessons will be sustained through the inevitable challenges they will face.
Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Will Campbell and many of those who came to the March on Washington in 1963 would have understood plowing. Christian leaders take up the plow freely because it is the right thing to do, and they “plow with hope” (I Corinthians 9:10) because they know that ultimately the harvest comes in God’s time.
- Leadership and Racism by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Right Questions for Church Leaders by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.