Watching President Trump’s inauguration and the events that have followed has made me think about the history of the civil rights movement in America. It’s clear to see that civil rights and human rights in the US are at threat under the new president. His first day was marked by women’s marches in major cities throughout the world and he is already taking forward decisions that many people feared.
The first action has been to sign an executive order begin the process to repeal Obamacare. He has reinstated the Mexico City Policy known as the Global Gag rule which withholds US foreign aid money to NGOs that provide abortions and abortion counselling. He has signed two executive orders which will build that wall he’s talked so much about, boost border patrol forces and increase the number of immigration enforcement officers who carry out deportations. And today he has been advocating torture which has made me especially glad to be an Amnesty International donor!
All of this has driven me to rewatch films like Selma and The Help to remind me of how far America has come and how much it has to lose. In turn, these films have reminded me of a key leadership quality – the courage of conviction and willingness to risk everything to defend what you believe in. This is what marks out the great leaders of the world.
Nelson Mandela gave a 3 hour speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1964 where he and others were accused of sabotage. He concluded his speech by setting out his vision for equality and harmony. So strong was his belief that he finished his speech saying that he would give his life to achieve the ideal he dreamed of:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Nelson Mandela, 1964
In the film Selma, directed by Ava Duvernay, we see the great Martin Luther King lead a march from Selma to Montgomery which had been prevented previously by state troupers by force of violence. During his campaign for civil rights, King was arrested many times, had his house bombed and was finally assassinated in 1968. He believed so much that what he was calling for was the right thing that he continued even though he risked his own personal safety and freedom.
Disney’s The Help portrays the same conviction when a budding journalist asks the African-American maids to tell their stories. In the film, the women she interviewed knew that they were likely to lose their jobs if they were identified, they could have their house burned down or even be killed for telling their story. They did it anyway and showed great courage in doing so.
And that’s it for me – a fundamental leadership quality – the courage to stand up for what you believe in regardless of the consequences. If we didn’t have people like that, we would never achieve any change. These leaders often are not the leaders with the fancy job title and fat salary. These are community leaders and individuals who are willing to put themselves on the line to speak out against injustice. Those people are the real leaders in our society.