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The Requisites of True Leadership

December 29, 1891 — Spruce Street Church, American Association of Educators of Colored Youth, Nashville TN


Mr. President: — I do not know how the subject which has been given me is to harmonize with aims of this Association, unless it be that it recognizes that the race whose youth we are engaged in teaching Is without the one great essential of elevation and progress — True Leadership — and that from the schools and colleges here represented must come the true leaders of the people.

Humanity in all ages has been a disorganized mass of power until driven by some great molecular force into cohesion in church and State–human Solar System which some human sun draws with centripetal force towards itself — a gigantic body requiring a head to complete its symmetry of figure and direct its movement.

Indeed all organized effort betokens leadership, and upon the world’s leadership the seal of history has set the stamp, and by that seal we know that leadership is true or false in proportion as it has been true to God, humanity and self.

The world is familiar with the history of the race whose youth we represent, and it is therefore not necessary to rehearse how we became a ship suddenly cut loose from its mooring and borne far out upon life’s ocean by the tempest of war without a rudder, chart or compass; whose crew have largely been unscrupulous politicians, and ministers and teachers of limited education.

Brushing aside the cobwebs of self-complacency and the veil of sentiment about what this race of ours has already accomplished, the plain naked truth confronts us that except in education centers, and then largely in individual cases, the masses of the people are making too little progress in the things which make a nation strong and great, namely: Education, Character, Wealth and Unity; and that the proscription, injustice and outrage of which we complain is due to this condition of affairs; that if we would slay the Hydra-headed monster prejudice there must be earnest, persistent efforts along these lines.

The Negro is the backbone of the South; his labor has cleared the forest, trained the swamps, tilled the soil, built the railroads and dotted the wildernesses with cities. He is the preferred laborer of the section of the country and he needs to be taught how to utilize that power for his own benefit. He needs to be taught also that he holds the solution of the problem in his own hand, and that solution lies in saving his money that with it he may educate himself and children, buy a home, and go into business and build for himself individually and collectively, a good character. If we travel abroad with our eyes open we know that the better class of our people are yet a handful as compared with the thousands who yet grope in darkness; waste their money, squander their time, and undermine health — many knowing nothing of race pride and others caring not even when they know. They need to be taught that it is absolutely necessary to save money, combine their earnings and enter the commercial and financial world if they would have employment for their sons and daughters after education.

For the dissemination of these truths among the thousands are needed true leaders who themselves possess an intelligent grasp of the situation, and consecration to the work. It is a work in which all members of the race so fitted should engage: for until this leaven is thoroughly mixed among the masses and they have risen in the scale, the most intellectual, refined and wealthy among us must suffer proscription and be deprived many advantages because of race connection. Withdrawing one’s self from one’s race does not hasten the glad and happy time when this class shall be in the majority, and ignorance, poverty and immorality, the minority.

The individual suffers because of the general race condition. Too well is it known that we are representatives of a race possessing no collective power or strength in commerce, politics, intellect or character; and our treatment, however unjust or unchristian, is but an expression of scorn and contempt that such a condition obtains among us.

Truly it is a condition tangible and real, and not a theory which confronts us. Yet how few of our hundreds of graduates with all their learning have gone into the world with a true conception of the work before them.

Their aspirations were high to do valiant work for the race; but they lacked the strength which comes from knowledge of the situation, and too often, like the seed which fell among thorns these aspirations are choked by worldly cares and disappointments, or wither away under the fierce sun of persecution.

They go forth armed with their diplomas, honestly believing that armour invincible and that their talents will batter down the walls of prejudice and secure individual recognition and employment. They find in reality that it does not lift them above general race conditions —that the race is not financially, politically nor intellectually able to help either itself or him and that he must battle with and for his people. Too often he fails to realize the promise of his young manhood, becomes discouraged, gives up the struggle in disgust and rusts away his life as a drone in the hive, or else confines himself to selfish pursuits caring naught save for his individual welfare. Neither his home nor school life prepared him for life in its reality — for the real leadership expected of him, and his ignorance of these things, however great his knowledge of classics and abstract sciences, causes him to fall by the wayside.

The united training of its youth by the home, school and State, in patriotism, fortitude and frugality made one nation so celebrated that the name of Spartan has become a synonym for heroism and endurance. Rome easily commanded the world because her youth, trained from the cradle as soldiers, presented a front of matchless discipline to the combined armies of the world.

A race situated as peculiarly as our own, along with its book-learning, calls for instruction for its youth (who are our embryo leaders) adapted to its peculiar needs, and training which will meet existing and not imaginary conditions. They should not only go out from these institutions with trained intellects, skilled hands, refined tastes, noble aspirations of the civilizing and christianizing influences thrown around them in these schools, but they should be taught in some concrete systematic way that the masses of his people are literally children of a larger growth who are just learning the rudiments of self-government and to whom, by reason of his superior intelligence, he is to be a leader; that they are poverty stricken, ignorant and superstitious and the whole race suffers from proscription and injustice because of it and that it requires his active, honest, earnest leadership to bring them to the required standard. Send them forth as missionaries; even as the teachers of the North came South to teach us, we must go forth to others.

The main requisites of such leadership are first, devotion to principle or courage of conviction. No great reform in the world’s history has ever been successful or far-reaching in its influence without an earnest, steadfast devotion which so takes hold of its leaders that they willingly brave the world’s censure–aye, even death itself in its defense. So perished the Apostles and counted the world well lost, — the sacrifice of life glorious; so died the early Christian in Rome’s amphitheater and at her stakes until, as has been said of Thomas Crammer, that his death at the stake lighted a torch which has shone round the world; so Leonidas and his immortal three hundred gave up their lives in defense of country. Owen Lovejoy died in defense of the freedom of the press, and brave old John Brown’s blood was shed at Harper’s Ferry in advocacy of liberty, of whom his son truly says: He gave noble life for a mighty sentiment. Their deaths were not in vain; they not only wrote their names in the highest niche in the temple of fame but added impetus to the cause of liberty and Christianity which shall roll on gathering new strength while time shall last, and men are left to exclaim, As Christ died to make men holy, so they died to make men free.

This devotion to principle does not always call for life, but it always means sacrifice of some kind. No man does great things without great sacrifice. Said Lady Henry Somerset in a sermon at Tremont Temple in Boston, recently: If I were asked to summarize that which I believe condensed the whole secret of every great leader’s history, I would go straight to these words, for in them I find the whole inspiration of every life that has been called to lead humanity — self-sacrifice, suffering and pain. Right through the ages this principle has come down to us, even from the time when it was breathed in the old legend, which tells how Curtius leaped into the dark chasm which closed on the flashing form of horse and rider, and we realize that the divine in the human heart, struggling in the twilight of the world, had grasped, as it must always grasp — as it did when Father Damien went to the Leper Island — the sublime, God-given principle that one must die — nay, better, one must be willing to die for the people.

When the great light of the beacon fire of Calvary illuminated that black darkness around, it seemed for a time but to kindle the flames of the fagots on which the martyrs died; but that light lit the great heathen world of Rome, and dispelled the darkness of mythology, until the temples of Jupiter and Venus rang out with the glorious Te Deums with the worship of Jesus Christ.

No cause was ever victorious against evil for which men and women have not lived and suffered and died, and the secret of true power for sacrifice has been that they dared to look beyond the paltry, visible surroundings of that cause.

It was this devotion to principle which dragged William Lloyd Garrison through the streets of Boston at the heels of a howling mob. No one is a true leader who to save himself in position fears to speak in defence of right no matter what its apparent cost.

He does not know that all the forces of nature are friends to the friend of God. And his is a base motive who cannot trust these forces to sustain him — which as servants of the Most High are more unerring than weak human foresight. The spirit of earnest devotion in pulpit, school-room, and work-shop is absolutely necessary in leading the people to elevation.

Perseverance is the next great element entering into true leadership. No man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God, or capable of true leadership. Patient, persistent, intelligent effort brings all things to pass, as shown by the success of the abolition movement, temperance and other reforms, which were scoffed and jeered in the outset. It is this which has given us the cable, steam engine, electric motors, cotton gin, sewing machine and other inventions in the material world, the result of tireless persistent activity. And this constant effort will wear away the barriers which impede race progress.

I will denominate self-control as the third requisite of true leadership, Better is he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city. Only the man who holds the forces of his physical, intellectual and moral nature in subjection to a firm and intelligent will, can ever hope to lead or control others. A pure example is better than much preaching. There is no stronger illustration of the truths we would teach, the paths we would have mankind follow than that our own lives represent the standards of sobriety, virtue and honor and stand a silent yet forceful exponent for all we would have the race become; that self-control which restrains from hasty or intemperate action, degrading habits or immoral practices.

The greatest test of character is the ability to stand prosperity. In moments of success which come to earnest devoted souls, comes also the temptation to use power and influence for selfish ambition or turning aside from the paths of virtue.

Charles Stewart Parnell, the most magnificent leader of modern times, met the English Parliament on its own grounds and steadily, persistently and by their own methods forced concessions and won more splendid victories in the cause of home rule than ever before. He united Ireland, kept the British lion at bay and aroused the admiration of the civilized world for his matchless leadership. In an evil hour he forgot to be true to himself and exert in his own behalf the moral strength, the possession of which he had given such splendid evidence, and he went down in the wreck occasioned by one grave instance of his lack of self-control, and not all his former prestige and power could restore him; and the cause for which he fought so grandly, and had brought so near to victory has been indefinitely retarded.

Our would-be leaders need especially to cultivate and practice self-control.

And while devotion to principle or courage of conviction, perseverance and patience, and self-control are the predominating requisites of true leadership, over and above them all — embodying the truest leadership–is a deep abiding love for humanity.

It is this which inspires devotion to principle; ennobles perseverance; gives the divine patience and tenderness so necessary in dealing with ignorance, superstition and envy; and strengthens and encourages self-control. The world has never witnessed a sublimer example of love for humanity than that of our blessed Savior whose life on earth was spent in doing good. We cannot hope to equal the infinite love, tenderness and patience with which He taught and served fallen humanity, but we can approximate it. Only in proportion as we do so is our leadership true. The reward of such love is expressed in the following beautiful poem:

Exceeding peace had Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said:
What writest thou? — The vision raised its head,
And with a look made all of sweet accord,
Answer’d, The names of those who love the Lord.
And is mine one? said Abou. Nay, not so,
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low
But cheerily still; and said I pray thee then
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great awakening light,
And show’d the names whom love of God had bless’d
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.



Source: Journal of the Proceedings of the American Association of Educators of Colored Youth: The Session of 1891, Held in Nashville, Tenn., December 29th to 31st, 1891 (Winston, NC: Stewarts Printing House), 1892, pp. 73-79.