By Latondra Newton
It’s sometimes difficult for people of my generation, born after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to grasp the tremendous extent of his influence on American cultureand cultures around the world. We read about Dr. King’s leadership of the modern civil-rights movement in our schools, heard references to his philosophy of nonviolence from the pulpits of our churches, and listened to countless stories from our parents and grandparents about their pilgrimages to the March on Washington. By the time I turned 13, Dr. King was cemented in my mind as a true national treasurea larger-than-life statesman, hero and martyrbecause of what I’d heard from others.
It was well into my adulthood, however, before I connected with his legacy in a more personal way. My mother, Olivia, passed away suddenly at an early age, and losing her inspired me to think about the accumulation of life events that shaped how I think about diversity and inclusion today. My mother was born in the segregated South in 1935. She endured a disgraceful education system and frequent ridicule and harassment on her long walks to school each day. She witnessed cross-burnings in the yards of innocent neighbors and heard threatening reports of lynch mobs around the region. In spite of her experiences, Olivia raised six children with a degree of dignity and grace that I have rarely seen in anyone else. She said her strength came from God and my grandfather, and the permission to try what seemed impossible came from the example set by leaders like Dr. King.
When I was in middle school, my mother instilled in meperhaps without trying to do soa sense of responsibility for facing up to big issues. My family was lower middle class, but I found myself attending school in the most affluent district in town. I was different from most of my classmates in many ways, yet I was determined to fit in by excelling academically. I was proud of my first-semester grades and couldn’t wait for my mother to attend the first parent-teacher conference at my new school. As I sat outside the classroom, eavesdropping on the conversation, I heard my teacher go on and on about how clean and well-dressed I was, how I was always on time and how polite I was during class discussions. After several minutes, Olivia, with her sweet Southern accent, finally asked, “Are we going to talk about her grades”
I couldn’t fully comprehend what had happened at the time, but I was mortified that one of my favorite teachers had reduced my academic experience to things that meant so little to me, and what I thought mattered so little to making my mark on the future. I was also disappointed that my mother had been so polite to the teacher and didn’t demand to know if this was how she talked to other parents about their children. After I sulked about this incident for two weeks or so, Mom looked at me and said, “You can either walk around dragging your bottom lip, or you can do something about it.” From that moment, I went out of my way to influence the culture around me, to tilt it toward greater inclusiveness. I did this with the means available to me as a schoolgirl: pulling together groups of kids from different backgrounds and focusing them on the things we all shared, whether music, sports or academics. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was using strategy!
Now, as an officer of a global corporation, I have grown to appreciate the importance of influencing culture with a powerful strategy. Apart from everything else, Dr. King was a master strategist, one who surrounded himself with like-minded talent who could embrace his vision as their own. Nonviolence was not just a principle; it was strategy they made work for all of us. Remember, at the time, this approach stood in stark contrast to the notion of achieving freedom by “any means necessary.” And when Dr. King delivered this message of peace in distinctive gospel tones, it successfully touched hearts across the country and created the critical mass for real change many thought could never happen.
Dr. King, like President Lincoln before him, positioned civil rights as a struggle for the moral soul of the nation rather than as about the inclusion of any one particular group. This was his strategic masterstroke. “I have decided to stick with love,” Dr. King once said. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” During the civil-rights era, advocating for the right to transportation, equal hiring, education and political engagement was formulaic. Turning the goal into championing the rights of all against inequality and those who enforced itthat was a stroke of genius.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died 23 days before I was born, but his example will forever influence the way I live my life and the way I dream about what’s possible. Dr. King’s model as a brilliant strategist is one I strive to carry with me every day.