Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Dr. King and Consensus Leadership

BOND: Within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which you came to chair, there was this hostility to leadership types. And I remember we used to talk about Martin Luther King sometimes in a disparaging way.

LEWIS: Some of us did.

BOND: Yes, some of us did, but "here comes the leader," and some of us were suspicious of the idea of the leader, one leader and thought, of course, that there were many many leaders. Is that a reflection of these earlier thoughts you had?

LEWIS: Well, again, I admired Martin Luther King, Jr. I loved the man, because without Dr. King inspiring me, I don't know where I would be. I just don't know. So I have always felt you needed somebody but I was not that person. I always felt you needed somebody, but not John Lewis, not John Robert Lewis. It had to be somebody else. You needed someone else to get out front, and so you needed someone to be the embodiment, to be the personification of that idea or that concept or the essence of that struggle, of that movement, and I felt that Martin Luther King, Jr., was that person.

And there were other people, local and indigenous leaders all across the South in the height of the civil rights movement. So you had national and world-known individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr., and you had -- but you also needed those local indigenous people.

BOND: But I think there was also the feeling that the danger of the single leader is that if he stumbles or falls or dies by natural causes, and you've placed all your hope and faith in this person, that when that person is gone, you're left leaderless.

LEWIS: I think I shared that. I shared that during that period that knowing the SNCC and some of the other groups, we believe in a type of group leadership, a consensus leadership, and not just necessarily one person, but a group of individuals, really. And that was one of the beautiful things about the early '60s when we were coming together, whether it was Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, or James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, and others and Dr. King. But it was a sense of solidarity and a sense that somehow, in some way, if something happened to one of us, there would be -- and that was in keeping with the philosophy of non-violence. If something happened to one of us, there would be someone else to step in and take that person's place.

BOND: Was there also connected in some way with non-violence this feeling that you need to seek consensus, that it couldn't be one person saying, "Let's do this, and all of you have to agree with me," that we have to come to some common understanding?

LEWIS: I think that was very much in keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. You know, some of our old meetings in Nashville, some of those meetings in Nashville and later as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, we would meet -- we would meet for a long time. We would meet until we reached consensus or either we would wear each other down until we would have to say, "Yes, I agree, this is the way to go, this is what we must do."