Monday, January 21, 2008

The "Great Man Theory" of History

Our national celebration of the life and influence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds me of one of my favorite books, War and Peace. In War and Peace, one of the things that Tolstoy tries to debunk is the historical myth of there being a "great man" or hero of historical events. He uses the Napoleonic Wars to illustrate his point. The defeat of French troops in Russia and their previous success throughout Europe, could not, contrary to the popular belief of Tolstoy's time, be attributed to Napoleon. Instead, the spirit of the French and Russian troops was the defining force of the war, just as the sentiment and actions of "the people" are/were the defining forces of history.

I do not mean any disrespect to Dr. King--he was a great man, from what I can tell, who devoted his life to doing what the Lord asked of him. However, there were thousands to men and women who did the same thing fighting for civil rights, and who will never be recognized. Dr. King gave voice to their beliefs. However, the organization and education of people throughout the country, something in which Dr. King was not directly involved, was just as important, if not more so to the success of the civil rights movement, than providing a public face for it.

Ella Baker, who was a grassroots organizer for civil rights beginning in the 1930's, focused on empowering individuals to lead and organize in their respective areas--a "teach a man how to fish" approach to change. I enjoyed learning about her and some of the smaller, yet crucial, organizations of individuals within the civil rights movement in her biography. It gave me a better understanding of the myriad of roles needed to affect meaningful change, as well as the equal importance of everyone fulfilling their individual callings. Just like the unified body that Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 12, there were many different parts of the civil rights movement that were necessary to affect change--each part playing an essential role.

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