Tom Eblen: MLK Day speaker says we can learn from King's leadership

Journalist, social activist, political commentator and author Jeff Johnson will speak in Lexington on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Journalist, social activist, political commentator and author Jeff Johnson will speak in Lexington on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Herald-Leader

In a coincidence of history, the national holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. falls on the same day this year as the second inauguration of Barack Obama, the first U.S. president of African descent.

That makes it a good day to talk about leadership, said Jeff Johnson, a journalist, commentator and social activist who is the featured speaker at Lexington's holiday commemoration program, 11 a.m. Monday at Heritage Hall.

"I'm going to be talking a great deal about current-day leadership and what kind of leadership we need in the face of the daunting challenges in our community," Johnson said during a telephone interview last week.

"In the face of trying to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., do we do more of a disservice by being unwilling to do the things that he did to be able to bring about change?"

Johnson, 39, is a political commentator on the MSNBC cable network, the Tom Joyner Morning Show and, an NBC News website that focuses on news and opinion tailored to black audiences. He also runs an Ohio-based organization trying to recruit and develop 80,000 black male teachers.

Previously, Johnson spent seven years as a commentator for Black Entertainment Television and was national director of the NAACP's Youth and College Division.

Today's social justice movements could learn a lot about leadership by studying the methods of King and his colleagues during the 1950s and 1960s, Johnson said. A key ingredient in the effectiveness of the civil rights movement was training in practical leadership skills and discipline.

"You weren't allowed to be in the marches and the demonstrations if you were not trained, because the various agendas they had were so focused," Johnson said. "Not just from a PR standpoint, but from a legislative one. They operated from the standpoint of being able to bring about systemic and pragmatic, legislative and policy changes.

"So often the movements of today are about 'Can I get on the front page of the paper?' or 'Can our organization be on CNN?,'" he said.

Training and focus are just as necessary for achieving goals in today's more complex social, political and economic environment, Johnson said.

"It's not about antiquated civil disobedience tactics," he said. "It's about whatever tactics you choose to use in the process of creating change."

That can include learning technical skills to organize an online get-out-the-vote campaign or developing human relations and business skills to form public-private partnerships to achieve neighborhood development projects.

Working with business and government is a key to modern progress, he said. So is tackling problems in a comprehensive way, involving players with a variety of perspectives and viewpoints.

"We each have a role to play," he said. "If we did this in a nonantagonistic way, I think some of these nontraditional partnerships would create spaces where you're really not asking people to go too far out of the way of what they already do, because everyone is stepping up."

Today's social justice issues are more subtle than during King's era, and the nation's demographic picture is more complex.

"For example, there are African-Americans who may be in the same family who may want drastically different things," Johnson said. "I think we have to be sophisticated enough to do that."

He mentioned the recent controversy in which ESPN commentator Rob Parker lost his job because of remarks he made about Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, including calling him a "cornball brother."

"You do the entire race a disservice by saying he's less black because his black experience is different than mine," Johnson said. "The real issue is 'Who believes what I believe, and can I work with them to push it?' That's what we've got to help people understand."

Effective change agents focus on simple agendas, even single issues, that others can rally around, Johnson said.

"You should ask, who are the people I can work with? Who are the people who believe what I believe? How can we pragmatically work around a concise agenda to be able to bring about those realities?" he said. "What it also does is it removes so much personal foolishness from what should be about communal advancement."

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