My earliest memory — and I thought everyone grew up this way — was of people sitting in our living room, exchanging papers and reading books, talking about the world they wanted to create. They were driven by aspiration, as much as by hurt and outrage, to seek out models of change. From sources that included the biblical stories of Moses and the Sermon on the Mount, along with the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Mahatma Gandhi, they developed a collective concept of how they could create change in America. I now believe that this type of discipline and commitment, which enables a group to hold and nurture a new collective intelligence, is important to the success of any change initiative.
When I was 12, I began accompanying my father on his preaching trips, and we would stay up in late-night discussions at local universities or private homes, talking about the nature of legal segregation in the South and about the more subtle caste system in the rest of America. We knew that there could be something better, an interracial world, where people were treated with respect and opportunities were prevalent, regardless of any factor like skin color. But what would such a world look like?
In those years, it was illegal in many Southern states to register black voters or to provide equal access to public facilities or integrated schools. Protest against any of these conditions was unthinkable. So the invitation list to these conversations could mean the difference between life and death; you had to gather people who could be depended on, who wouldn’t betray the confidential identity of others in the room. Some of those people were lawyers, often representing people who had been arrested. Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice, participated in many of these sessions in his early years. People often conducted what might be called a discovery process: identifying who else, in the next county or state, might be doing something similar.
It turned out that there were many more people active in relevant networks than anyone would otherwise have noticed. Many were preachers, and the movement rapidly spread to places where people could congregate without raising suspicion: the churches first, and then the beauty parlors and barbershops. These rapidly became known as information hubs, places to find out what was going on, but they were more than that. Marxist labor leaders had tried to organize in the South, largely without success, but this new network of civil rights preachers — people like Sam Proctor, C.T. Vivian, Wyatt T. Walker, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr., my father, and many others — used the language people already knew, the language of the Bible. Sermons about the racist society as Pharaoh’s kingdom resonated with just about everyone who heard them, from illiterate men and women who made their living scrubbing floors to college professors who had learned Greek and Hebrew so they could study the roots of democracy.
Something uncanny happens when a large number of people begin to speak about something new in a language that all of them understand. The conversations develop into something larger than the sum of their parts, and this affects people, in the same way that a magnetic field affects the position of iron filings within it. It got to the point where Dr. King and other preachers would start talking and the audience would finish with them, in unison, though they hadn’t heard that particular sermon before. (Later, Dr. King would be accused of plagiarism, but he was simply tapping the same field of conversation as the other speakers.) I remember being in the crowd listening to sermons and feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I’ve learned that others have felt something similar at momentous transitions, from the end of Communism in Eastern Europe to the fall of apartheid in South Africa to the pivotal moment in particularly effective organizational transformations. It feels as if the energy in the arena has been turned up, as if there is something crackling through the people who are present.