wondering what Knowledge you need…
The beautiful spring evening was interrupted with a “fire alarm” that had all the students from the largest set of dorms on campus outside. As we were milling around wondering, a young man climbed out on the balcony with his guitar, an amp and microphone, and started serenading the crowd. It was a great distraction and everyone loved it. A few minutes later, he announced his name, and that he was running for student body president and wanted everyone’s vote. It would have been great, but we had our own candidate in the election…
Our success with Faculty Evaluations and the School Constitution were not sufficient for Tommy. He was a fan of the Robert Redford movie, “The Candidate” and wanted to try our hand at getting someone elected President of the Student Body. We had found someone interested and gotten his name on the ballot. He had even suggested a campaign issue – start an Honor Council at SMU. Having started at Vanderbilt, the other “Harvard of the South”, he wondered why there was no attention paid to plagiarism or cheating at SMU. He thought he would make this into a winning issue. This evening event made it clear that we were going to have a tough time against a “real” politician.
Knowledge can be used for “unwonderful” things…
In 1959, MLK moved back to Atlanta to continue the growth of the SCLC. Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver expressed open hostility towards King’s return to his hometown in late 1959. He claimed that “wherever M. L. King, Jr., has been, there has followed in his wake a wave of crimes”, and vowed to keep King under surveillance. One evening, he was driving a friend home when police stopped them. King was cited for “driving without a license” because he had not yet been issued a Georgia license. King’s Alabama license was still valid, and Georgia law did not mandate any time limit for issuing a local license. King paid a fine but with apparently no Knowledge that his lawyer agreed to a plea deal that also included a probationary sentence.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Student Movement asked King to participate in an October mass sit-in, timed to highlight how 1960’s Presidential election campaign had ignored civil rights. King participated in a sit-in at the restaurant inside Rich’s, Atlanta’s largest department store, and was among the many arrested that day. The authorities released everyone over the next few days, except for King. Invoking his probationary plea deal, judge J. Oscar Mitchell sentenced King on October 25 to four months of hard labor. Before dawn the next day, King was taken from his county jail cell and transported to a maximum-security state prison.
The arrest and harsh sentence drew nationwide attention. Many feared for King’s safety, as he started a prison sentence with people convicted of violent crimes, many of them White and hostile to his activism. Both Presidential candidates were asked to weigh in, at a time when both parties were courting the support of Southern Whites and their political leadership including Governor Vandiver. Nixon, with whom King had a closer relationship prior to the sit-in, declined to make a statement despite a personal visit from Jackie Robinson requesting his intervention. Nixon’s opponent John F. Kennedy called the governor (a Democrat) directly, enlisted his brother Robert to exert more pressure on state authorities, and also, at the personal request of Sargent Shriver, made a phone call to King’s wife to express his sympathy and offer his help. The pressure from Kennedy and others proved effective, and King was released two days later. King’s father decided to openly endorse Kennedy’s candidacy for the November 8 election which he narrowly won.
Knowing and Knowledge can be different
The rules for campaigning across campus were ludicrous. You could only spend $25 total on your campaign and even with inflation, that was not a problem. The other candidate did not really worry – his father owned a Newspaper in West Texas and “gifted” him with a 12-page edition that looked just like the student newspaper, featuring articles about him and how his leadership would help the school. We were caught with no real Knowledge of the depth of political favor (at least at this point), and we lost the election by a wide margin.
Then something wonderful happened: the winner sensed the issue we had surfaced was actually a good idea, and appointed our candidate to get the Honor Council set up. It was a masterful political stroke, and we busily went to work pulling it together over the next few months. Again we had to navigate the Faculty Senate, but with the friends that we had worked with before, that was easily dealt with. Our candidate graduated, but knew it was in good hands. That fall, I was honored to be the first Vice President of the Honor Council of SMU. During a trip back to campus a few years ago, and sure enough, it is STILL in operation, and they even have an office. This lasting legacy is a wonderful reminder that as dirty as politics is, some good can come from it.
You don’t want to Know some things
Like many, early in my career, I would wonder why certain things were happening, and chock it up to the term you hear thrown around a lot – politics. This chapter of my life taught me what to really wonder about – things that you can’t see easily, and how to respond when they do come into the light. Agendas and initiatives rarely go forward without changing – the wonder is getting the other parties to see it as being in their best interest. Many leaders at lower levels never understand that, and in turn, get caught up blaming things beyond what they think they can control.
MLK was a realist, something we will see even more of tomorrow. Here, he understood that the platform he had been given/was building was potentially more wonderful if it was used to help get the right leader elected. You can argue the dirty paths that got Kennedy elected, and there are many chapters of that story that are very dark. And the wonder is, that with his help, MLK ensured that he had an ally that he could appeal to – not for everything he wanted, but enough to keep his Vision moving forward.
What wonders can you use to reframe your Knowledge
Knowing what it is you want to achieve, for you and for your team, is critical to any path forward. And, when events appear to conspire against you, the wonder is you can reframe it to help you see a different approach. Start-Up leaders exercise that muscle daily if not hourly. All of us need to really develop our own ability to wonder and find new ways of leveraging our own Knowledge. It can be as simple as being patient, resolved, and wondering when others will catch up to what you see. As the children gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church and went out to face the hoses and dogs, a favorite song they sang to keep their courage up was “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”