America’s Third Civil Rights Movement

Proclamation 95, better known as The Emancipation Proclamation, was a presidential proclamation and executive order issued by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. It changed the federal legal status of more than 3 million enslaved people in the designated areas of the South from slave to free.  The signing of the Proclamation was the pivotal event that helped to hasten an end to the four year Civil War which cost the lives of 620,000 and thus ended America’s First Civil Rights Movement.

Emancipation Proclamation

On July 2, 1964, more than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark civil rights and US labor law known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  Four years later and just seven days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson signed a second Civil Rights Act of 1968, which provided equal housing opportunities regardless of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

JBJ and MLK 1964

Before equal rights could be granted to virtually all Americans, America’s Second Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s would claim the lives of innocents and activists alike.  Among them were Emmett Till; Medgar Evers; Eldridge Cleaver; four little girls in a church basement in Birmingham; Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; and Martin Luther King Jr.

Today we are witnessing the first skirmishes of America’s Third Civil Rights Movement…the fight for the lives of school children, people of color, and potentially anyone walking the streets of any U.S. city whether large or small.  This new Civil Rights Movement is not about equal opportunities in the labor force, accessible housing, integrated schools, or other public accommodations.  This new battle is not about universal access to seats on a bus or at a lunch counter or which drinking fountain may be used.

Instead this new fight for equality derives from America’s seminal document, the Declaration of Independence which speaks of three unalienable rights, the first of which is LIFE.  The founders described the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as having been given to all human beings by their creator and which governments are created to protect.

Life Liberty and Pursuit of HappinessDeclaration of Independence

But the words of the Declaration, though implicitly promising these fundamental rights, ring hollow for the 13,000 Americans who are murdered each year by one of more than 300 million guns in the U.S.  The unalienable right to life is alienated on average 96 times every day when an American is murdered by a gun.  And, of the 96 people killed every day by a gun, seven are children and teens.  On average, 50 women per month are shot to death by an intimate partner.

America’s gun homicide rate is more than 25 times the average of other high-income countries.  An analysis of gun homicide rates in developed countries— those considered “high-income” by the World Bank — found that the United States accounted for 46 percent of the population but 82 percent of the gun deaths

If every person killed by a gun last year avoided being shot and instead they were a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight it would take nearly 100 planes to accommodate them.  Now imagine that all 100 planes plummeted to earth.  The carnage would be unfathomable.  13,000 murders each year by guns is like five Pearl Harbors or four September 11’s…EVERY YEAR.

None of this data include accidental deaths from guns or suicide by self-inflicted gun shots.  These are murders.  The same robbing of life that befell those lynched, blown up, or killed by other violent means.  And in each case that fundamental and unalienable right to life was violently stripped away.  Each was an infringement of someone’s civil rights.

The plaintiff cries of Enough is Enough are resonating across this country with the loudest coming from America’s youth.  High schoolers have become this generation’s civil rights leaders. They are the brilliant, articulate and passionate voices of what started as a grief stricken protest but which has evolved to a national movement.  The voices of the students from Parkland where the civil rights of 17 students and teachers synced in harmony with student-led sibling marches in more than 800 cities across the globe.

Capitol  March for our Lives - New York Times

What was first thought to be a short-lived protest has grown rapidly to a real movement that has and continues to capture to attention and commitment of millions of everyday people as well as leaders in the highest seats of government, faith leaders, and other celebrities and notables.  And it appears to be a movement that will not soon go away.

March 4 March 10

This third American Civil Rights Movement appears to have an endless supply of fuel to sustain the passion and energy last seen in the 60’s by those who marched for equality or in protest of a war.  We are witnessing the evolution from a moment to a movement.  And as with all movements, change may not come easily, quickly or even completely.  Change comes about incrementally by those who pledge to sustain the movement until voices become victors.

March 5   March 3

The courts have long held that the wrongful death of an innocent by at the hands of a police officer can give rise to charges of a civil rights violation.  The basis would seem to be that the victim has been robbed of the fundamental right to life.  And though infrequently used, this legal oddity was actually first conceived in the Civil War reconstruction in the 1870s as a way to prosecute criminal activity when local authorities either wouldn’t or couldn’t convict someone committing crimes against black people.

Exactly what remedies can be developed to slow or even eliminate the epidemic of murder by firearms is yet to be discovered.  But one thing is certain.  The youth of America have launched a movement and as they will tell anyone who will listen, they’re not going away.

March 1

We’ve seen their faces and heard their passionate pleas.  We feel like we know Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Alfonso Calderon, Sam Zeif, and Delaney Tarr.  But the image of one young girl who spoke at the Washington March for our Lives was the one speech that connected the most famous Civil Rights leader of the modern era with the newest Civil Rights leaders of this generation.

Yolanda Renee King, the nine-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. told the world that her grandfather had a dream that “his four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”  Then little Yolanda shared her dream… “that enough is enough. And that this should be a gun-free world. Period.”


The day before a gunman snuffed out the life of Dr. King, the iconic Civil Rights leader said:  “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”  The young people who have inherited Dr. King’s zeal and commitment will undoubtedly take this country to the victory lane of America’s third Civil Rights Movement.  They will be the activists whose advocacy will bring about the day when Americans may never again experience the catastrophic death toll caused by guns.  And following Dr. King’s teaching, they will succeed nonviolently but with all of the passion of every Civil Rights leader whose legacy they have inherited.

Knotted gun sculpture

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America Needs More Courageous Servant Leaders


In October 2015 Pope Frances made his first official visit to the United States as the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church.  Shortly after his departure I published the following commentary about the Pontiff’s visit in which I wrote about his modest charisma and the lessons he taught about the true meaning of servant leadership.

I have thought a lot about this article over the last year as I have watched the human train wreck that is the Trump presidency.  Yesterday’s comments by Donald Trump in which he used vile and racist language to once again show his hate and disdain for black and brown people in the U.S. and throughout the world should be a tipping point for this wholly unfit occupant of the Oval Office.  But it can only serve as a tipping point if we see unprecedented courage from leaders in government, industry, clergy, and the nonprofit sectors who are willing to speak truth to power and condemn with a united voice Trump’s indefensible actions, comments and attitudes.

I could write volumes about what is wrong with a society that would elect a Donald Trump as its President with the full knowledge of his history of misogyny, xenophobia, and racial animus.  Rather than one more commentary on what most enlightened people know to be the problem I thought it would be helpful to offer a possible solution.  And the best way for me to do that is to re-publish my October 2015 commentary about the meaning of and the need for courageous servant leaders to step up and help re-direct the moral compass of the nation.

Here is my commentary written more than two years ago which I believe is as relevant today as when it was first published more than two years ago:

(The following commentary was first published on October 21, 2015)

The security barriers have long been taken down, the Vatican flags and banners have been folded and stored, and the Popemobile and Papal Fiat are garaged waiting to be sold or auctioned to benefit the poor. Pope Francis may be back in Rome, but the lessons he imparted during his first U.S. visit continue to inform and inspire not only the Catholic faithful, but all who had the opportunity to hear and see him.

Pope visit

So what exactly did the pope teach that was neither religious, spiritual, moral nor ethical (which is, after all, what we expect to hear from the head of the Roman Catholic Church)? Simply put, the pontiff taught us through his words and deeds the important lesson of servant leadership. Every organization and institution has a titular or nominal leader, but too few are led by authentic servant leaders as exemplified in the way we got to know Francis in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Pope Francis

In his book, “The Culture Engine,” organizational consultant S. Chris Edmonds defines servant leadership as “a person’s dedication to helping others be their best selves at home, work and in their community.”

Edmonds says that all servant leaders share two fundamental beliefs about the people they lead, and engage in five practices that put these beliefs into action. He describes servant leaders as those who believe that:

  • Every person has value and deserves civility, trust and respect;
  • People can accomplish much when inspired by a purpose beyond themselves.
  • According to Edmonds, the five practices of servant leaders include the following:
  • Clarify and reinforce the need for service to others;
  • Listen intently and observe closely;
  • Act as selfless mentors;
  • Demonstrate persistence;
  • Lovingly hold themselves and others accountable for their commitments.

Characteristics of Servant Leaadership

Jeffrey Krames, a Jewish American business author and son of Holocaust survivors, in his book “Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis,” offers a practical guide for how any leader can take these same principles to become an authentic and humble leader. Krames sums up the four characteristics that he believes make Pope Francis a model of servant leadership:

  • Be authentic;
  • Advocate for the least among you;
  • Lead with humility;
  • Avoid insularity.

Those who shoulder the important responsibility for selecting and evaluating leaders of communal organizations would do well to measure current or future staff and volunteer leaders to determine if they embody the characteristics and practices of a true servant leader. At the end of the day, it will be genuine servant leaders who do more than lead their organization. Instead, they will contribute to leading an entire community to change for the sake of shared greatness and the common good.

What we saw from Pope Francis during his U.S. visit was the very best example of a quiet, authentic and humble servant leader who offered lessons worthy for us all to follow.


I fervently hope that the time may have come when we hear those who are devoted to America’s values that enough is enough.  A time when people of good will and good faith can set aside their self-interest and political agendas to begin to talk more about what’s right and less about who’s right.

Monday is the annual commemoration of the life of the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is fitting that we remind ourselves of the words of 19th century clergyman Theodore Parker which were often spoken by Dr. King:  ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”

But that arc does not bend by itself.  It only bends toward justice guided by the moral compass of courageous servant leaders and not by those who believe that America’s best days are behind her.

Arc of the moral universe

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