Finding the Martin Luther King Jr. in all of us

Visionary, leader, activist, peerless orator, man of faith: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was clearly a remarkable man. The primary face of the Civil Rights Movement, he deserves all of the accolades heaped upon him. 

He and the people he led faced down bigots with torches and nooses and water cannons. Their bravery, rooted deeply in nonviolence, changed the country. Not completely. Not nearly enough. But a bit. And over the decades that “bit” has taken on a life of its own.

In the world I live in—as a white woman in the rarefied East Coast liberal bubble—we believe we’ve moved past questions of “integration,” sometimes called by the fancier name of “diversity.” Inside the bubble, we talk of inclusion now; it feels like a big step forward.

I firmly believe my clients want to be inclusive—and many other members of Corporate America do too. But you have to leave the office sometimes. And when we do, I fear we’ll soon be stepping back into the worst of the 1950s and ’60s. For people of color, for anyone whose religion doesn’t conform to the strictures of evangelical “Christianity,” for women, for LGBT people, these are perilous times.

I fall into all but the first of those categories. Folks like me are finding out what our brothers and sisters of color have unfortunately known forever: what it’s like to live in a country where you can’t trust that the people behind the political institutions and social infrastructure have your back.

Where’s Martin Luther King, Jr. when you need him?

Dr. King was right to remind us

“…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

As a lesbian, I’ve felt hopeful in the last few years that the arc has been shortening. Now I see what our friends in other communities have known all along: it’s only an illusion. Laws are just words on paper, and they only work when we agree to respect them. As democracy and the social compact crumble in the face of authoritarianism, I have to wonder: Just how far around the bend is justice?

Three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for the divisive racist we will inaugurate as president this week. Yet those of us who loathe the man and what he stands for don’t have a leader to coalesce around. Who can help carry us forward? Who can help us stem the tide of hatred that’s about to swamp our institutions and laws?

Where’s our next Dr. King?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the subject of this Pulitzer Prize-winning bookLook in the mirror. Look at your neighbors. At each other, as Gloria Steinem said.

We each have a responsibility to step forward, to lead our own personal protests, however small they may be. We each need to take every opportunity we have to stand up for justice—for all, just like we say in the Pledge of Allegiance.

It’s been a long time since I read Bearing the Cross, David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but one quotation near the end of the book has stayed with me over the decades. It’s a woman named Diane Nash. My notes say she was an “SCLC worker,” but if memory serves me, I think she may also have gone to school with Dr. King, so she knew him personally. Nash says:

“If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they—young people—are more likely to say ‘gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us’…If people knew how that movement was started, then the question they would ask themselves is, ‘What can I do?'”

What can I do?

What can I do? It’s not a comfortable question. But these are not comfortable times.

We can’t wait around for the next Martin Luther King, Jr. to reveal himself. Or herself. If Diane Nash is right, the seeds of leadership are in all of us. And we have a responsibility—to our world, to our country, to each other—to restore civility. To honor and respect each other. To shorten that moral arc once again, and round that final bend to Justice.


Who would you be if you believed you could write? Find out. The world needs your voice.

“Look at each other”— Gloria Steinem on the present

Everyone in the room—well, not quite everyone, as it turned out—hoped Gloria Steinem would save us. She’d done it before, though she demurred when one of the audience members said that. She chuckled self-deprecatingly and replied, “It’s called a ‘movement’ because there are lots of people in it.”

Okay, so Gloria Steinem hadn’t taken the entire mass of womanhood on her fine-boned shoulders and carried us to the Land of Equality. And when another audience member implied that that’s where we’ve landed (“My sister is 11 years younger than I am and she’s got a great job in finance and doesn’t understand what my generation went through to get her there”), Steinem demurred again.

“Of course we haven’t ‘gotten there.’ Women are still not paid the same as men…” and she reeled off a number of other points that didn’t make it into my notes. But anyone who lived through the Demonization of Hillary Clinton knows women aren’t on a level playing field.

My evening with Gloria

I should pause here and explain what brought me into the same room as Gloria Steinem. I had the privilege of attending a private showing of Annie Leibovitz’s photography exhibit, Women: New Portraits. The show has been traveling the world all year and you can see it in New York until December 11th, at a former women’s prison. Steinem helped Leibovitz line up portrait subjects, and they’ve apparently made this kind of joint presentation frequently.

Gloria Steinem & Annie Leibovitz at an earlier gallery talk
Steinem & Leibovitz at an earlier event. Photograph: George Chinsee for WWD

This particular gathering brought together people from my high school’s community—students, teachers, alumnae, parents; anyone fortunate enough to have clicked quickly enough on the email the school sent at 8:00 the night after the election. They alerted us that it would be coming, but in my post-election haze, I’d forgotten. By pure chance, I decided to check my email before turning off my computer for the day. I looked at the clock—8:01—and experienced my first moment of happiness since the election. [Note: still waiting for the second.]

And so a few days ago I trekked to the westernmost reaches of Chelsea to attend my first large-scale gathering since the world changed in November.

Over and over, I heard women greet each other: “How are you? Well, you know—other than…” But of course it’s hard to separate the rest of our lives from the “other than.” And even being in a roomful of extraordinary women—the ones lining the wall in Leibovitz’s compelling photographs and the ones standing around nibbling lemon squares—even that didn’t lift the feeling of impending doom.

Gloria Steinem says “Don’t look up”

How can we get through this? We all wanted to know.

“Look at each other,” Steinem advised us. “Don’t look up.” Because when we look up—”at the boy in the bully pulpit,” as she put it—we feel alone. But when we look at each other, we can see the power and potential we have. We’ve always had it, and now that we’ve been shocked out of complacency, we need to put it to good use.

“Look at each other; don’t look up.”—Gloria Steinem

Someone asked why so many women voted for Trump. Steinem reminded us that many segments of women voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, including African American women and single women. Only married women voted in the majority for Trump. She suggested this might be a case of internalized oppression.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, here’s Wikipedia’s definition:

Internalized oppression is the manner in sociology and psychology in which an oppressed group comes to use against itself the methods of the oppressor.

For example, sometimes members of marginalized groups hold an oppressive view toward their own populations, or they start to believe in negative stereotypes of themselves.”

So perhaps you’re a post-menopausal woman who’s noticed how tired you get these days. If you generalize your feelings across your entire gender, it’s easy to believe people saying that Clinton lacks the “stamina” to be president. Voilà! Internalized oppression.

A brave question—and an answer to model

But it was the very next question that made me want to tell you all about this event. A woman asked—not timidly or aggressively, just genuinely wondering:

“Is it possible to be a thoughtful woman and vote for Trump?”

Steinem answered the question with integrity, grace, and complete respect for the questioner—behavior we should all emulate.

She acknowledged that some people feel stuck and abandoned. Some feel confused to find themselves living in a country where descendants of white Europeans will soon become a minority. And for those people, Trump may have seemed like the most logical choice.

If the election proved anything [this is Elaine again, not paraphrasing Steinem], it’s that we’re not going to get anywhere by labeling each other—not “racists” (though certainly some are); not “idiots” (though ditto, or at least easily misled).

We need to listen to and try to understand the people on the other side, try to arrive at a shared truth. Even if it’s only a tiny slice of the truth, if we can share it and reconnect at the level of our common humanity, we can broaden the conversation. And then we have hope.

Gloria Steinem suggests that real, lasting change happens when we “look at each other,” connect to each other. And how do we do that? My answer won’t surprise regular readers: we tell our stories, authentically and often.

We share our pain, one person at a time. We remind each other that the masses of people the PEOTUS and his not-so-merry men are trying to make us hate or fear are composed of individuals like you and me. People with the same needs, the same hopes and dreams for respect and security, for peace and understanding.

Demonizing any group only leads to more hatred—whether it’s Trump demonizing immigrants or Clinton’s voters demonizing Trump’s. “Look at each other,” as Steinem said. And tell your stories. One story at a time, one connection at a time, perhaps we truly can change the world.


Making points, subtly: Story Safari

We most often find political candidates making points blatantly at political rallies or debates. But telling stories allows a speaker to make points much more subtly and powerfully.

The night after the final debate found the two major party presidential candidates sharing a stage once more. The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, an annual fund-raiser for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s children’s programs is a roast, of sorts, but with a really spiffy audience: the dress code is white tie and tails, except for the clergy, who break out their finest robes. The emcee, Alfred E. Smith IV, told Trump that even though the man next to him—Cardinal Timothy Dolan—was wearing a robe, he should remember he wasn’t in a locker room.

The politicians who speak—and in a presidential election year, it’s always the two presidential candidates—usually engage in gentle partisan ribbing. But of course, behavioral norms disappear when Trump takes the stage.

He started out with self-aggrandizing humor (comparing himself to “a carpenter’s son” the Catholics hold in high regard) and rapidly devolved into thinly veiled ad hominem (ad feminem?) attacks on Clinton as he veered closer to the points he makes in his stump speech. He got booed—so loudly and so often that even Fox News had to noticeMaking points as subtly as a bull in a china shop, Trump got booed.. And, honestly, he deserved every second of it.

Clinton landed some good jokes and then took a more political turn, as well. She talked about the discrimination Al Smith faced as the first Catholic to run for president. She talked about the many immigrants—Catholic and otherwise—who make great contributions to this country. And she talked about the Christian values that she, a Methodist, shares with the Catholic Church.

In another venue, Clinton might have contrasted her positions with Trump’s. She might have said, “Smith faced the same kind of discrimination Trump wants us to apply to Muslims.” She might have said, “Many of your parents were immigrants; Trump wants to keep people like them out of the country.” She might have said—well, just about anything about how Trump’s life and actions contradict just about everything Christianity stands for.

But she didn’t. She didn’t need to.

Making points with the perfect story

Clinton’s classy approach wasn’t the only thing I loved about her Alfred E. Smith Dinner performance. I also loved the story safari aspect.

Another politician might have just name-checked Al Smith and moved on. After all, the guy’s been dead for more than 70 years; it’s not like he’d notice.

But Clinton and her speechwriters found the perfect stories—true stories—to build the back half of her speech around. That allowed her to connect with her audience by honoring the person they named their fund-raiser after. And to showcase the issues she cares about and her fundamental human decency. (Amazing that that’s a distinguishing characteristic in this election. Remember when it was table stakes?)

True stories are always the best, richest sources of material. They’re not always easy to find. But half the fun of the hunt lies in finally bagging the prize. Congratulations to Clinton and her speechwriters.


Cancel the reality show

“I’ll keep you in suspense.”

I never watched Donald Trump’s “reality show,” The Apprentice. But since I haven’t been living under a rock, I do know that its conceit turned on someone getting fired every week. Like all reality shows, it saved the final reveal of the unlucky contestant for the last act, just before the credits rolled.

Hundreds of people, famous and not, paraded through the Trump Trump at the last debate of the reality show—er—electionboardroom in the course of that series. And the one certainty of the proceedings was that the only person completely immune from being fired was Donald J. Trump himself.

If anyone doubted that Trump sees this election as a giant reality show, we got our proof Wednesday night. Asked if he would accept the results of the election win or lose, Trump twice refused to say yes. Secretary Clinton described his response as “horrifying.” Indeed.

The only person who benefits from “keeping us in suspense” is Trump. He apparently wants to trigger a civil war. Someone should explain this to him in terms he can understand: Donald, no one will be able to afford to stay in your fancy hotels or buy your condos or play on your golf courses after the economy collapses.

I used to fear that armed militia would bring down our country. Now I fear all it would take is words.

Reality show vs. reality: Words, used well

In response to Trump’s narcissistic reality show tease, The Washington Post published an article about the concession speech of “the most beautiful loser”—Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Eisenhower in 1952.

“It is traditionally American to fight hard before an election. It is equally traditional to close ranks as soon as the people have spoken,” he said in the brief but poignant speech. Stevenson thanked his supporters before continuing. “That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties. I urge you all to give to Gen. Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great task that lie before him. I pledge him mine. We vote as many. But we pray as one.”

“We vote as many. But we pray as one.” I don’t know about you, but reading those sentences brought tears to my eyes.

Stephenson delivered this speech more than 60 years ago, but we don’t have to reach back that far to find civility in a concession speech. Eight years ago, I blogged about John McCain’s remarkably gracious concession. He didn’t demonize his former opponent—that may be difficult to recall, since the loudest voices in his party have spent the last eight years doing little but demonizing Obama.

McCain recognized the historical import of the moment, electing the first African-American president. And he respected the Constitutional compact that has kept our country united through more than 40 hard-fought presidential elections.

One line brought me to tears—serious, entire-box-of-Kleenex tears (I still remember)—and gave me a great deal of respect for the man:

“Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”

The crowd responded, according to The New York Times‘s transcript: “(Cheers, applause.)”

It’s too far-fetched to expect Adlai Stevenson Trump to take the stage. And he has no respect for McCain (I’ve lost mine too with his recent comments about obstructing the new President Clinton’s nominations for the Supreme Court, but that’s another story).

Perhaps Ivanka can deliver his concession speech. Sell the idea to him as a plot twist for the ages. And then please, my fellow Americans, cancel Trump’s destructive reality show for good.

Short sentences—the gold nuggets of writing

Writing short sentences and snappy, to-the-point paragraphs is not nearly as easy as it looks. As someone said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” That wisdom has been attributed to everyone from 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal to 19th century American novelist Mark Twain to that titan of 20th century statesmanship Winston Churchill.

Still, it’s worth spending time to wash away the excess verbiage to find the gold nuggets in your writing. Because short sentences pack a memorable punch.

Ernest Hemingway reportedly wrote a “novel” in only six words: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” I’ve suggested the phrase “micro-story” to describe the kind of short sentence so rich in description that it evokes an emotion. Hillary Clinton’s convention speech contained one:

“Way too many dreams die in the parking lots of banks.”

You can feel it—can’t you?—the disappointment of an entrepreneur just denied funding for their dream. Data points generally exit our brains as quickly as they enter. But those dying dreams will stay with listeners a long while. Why?

As the Heath Brothers, Chip and Dan, remind us in their book Made to Stick:

“We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.”

And you don’t need 10,000 words to create a feeling. Secretary Clinton did it with just 11. But that’s practically an epic in the world of short sentences.

How low can you go?

Wordcount-wise, I mean. How many words does it take to be memorable? I’ll offer you two examples.

First, this year’s winner of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. British novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton built a reputation—and a remarkable readership back in Victorian times—for stuffing his writing so full of words as to render it almost unreadable. My favorite entry this year is one of the runners-up, by Neal T. Godden:

“After his seventh shot of Jack Daniels, Billy reflected that only a certain kind of man, a Roman Catholic priest, born under the sign of Gemini, whose loved one had been run down by a bus full of inebriated Lazio supporters on a glorious Sunday morning in early April outside a provincial church whose bells were ringing Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in B minor, would truly be able to understand the abyss of despair in which he was drowning.”

That there’s a bunch of words. But what does it mean? You have to re-read it several times. Or maybe just skip to the last clause: Ah! The protagonist is unhappy.

Contrast with this:

“I think this may require therapy.”

That six-word gem comes from a blogger who goes by the name Alto. He’s created a feature called The Saturday Six, in which he posts a few six-word stories and invites his readers to add their own in the comments.

Next time you think more words equal more meaning, pay a visit to Mr. Bulwer-Lytton. And if you think you can’t say much without saying a lot, check out The Saturday Six. Short sentences create big impact.

No Thank You

I finally felt well enough Wednesday night to watch the convention speeches in real time. I’m going to let others parse Joe Biden’s salty language (“that’s malarkey!”) or Obama’s grace. Instead, I’d like you to think for a moment about Tim Kaine.

He ended his speech well, rallying the crowd by linking Hillary Clinton with some of the great political leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries:

My fellow Democrats, this week we start the next chapter in our great and proud story. Thomas disclaimed all men were equal and Abigail remembered the women. Woodrow brokered the peace and Eleanor broke down the barriers. Jack told us what to ask and Lyndon answered the call.

Martin had a dream and Cesar y Dolores said si se puede. And Harvey gave his life. Bill, Bill built a bridge into the 21st Century and Barack gave us hope. And now Hillary is ready! She is ready to fight! She is ready to win! And she is ready to lead!

But if you felt like it took him a while to find his rhythm, to connect with the crowd, there’s a reason for it. And it’s probably my biggest pet peeve about speakers: He started with a litany of thank-yous.

Now there are a lot of good reasons a politician—especially someone relatively unknown on the national stage—would want to mention his family members by name. But work them into the speech in a way that they add value to your remarks. Kaine did that—but he was at the podium for a full minute and a half before he got to what I believe his speechwriters intended to be the opening of his speech. Ninety seconds! By then, he’d lost the attention of all but his most ardent admirers. He got the attention back, but he had to work for it.

You know I’m right: How many times have you been in an audience when a speaker thanks a litany of people “for having me here today” or “for organizing this great event”? Unless yours is going to be one of those names the speaker mentions, I’m willing to bet you tune out for that part.

Time magazine’s website has a transcript of the remarks as delivered and a video for those of you who’d rather watch. Here’s how the Senator opened his big speech:

Thank you everybody. Hello, Philadelphia!

(APPLAUSE) Hello Democratic families.

I want to start off by thanking my beautiful wife and my three wonderful children, Nat, Woody, and Annella. They are sitting right up there.

(APPLAUSE)

You Know my son, Nat, deployed with his Marine battalion just two days ago.

(APPLAUSE)

Now, that confused me. Is Nat sitting “right up there” or is he in the desert somewhere? Obviously it’s testimony to the character of the senator’s family that his son enlisted—that’s important for us to know—but inserting it in this thank-you opening feels very unfocused. Senator Kaine continued:

KAINE: He deployed overseas to protect and defend the very NATO allies that Donald Trump says he now wants to abandon.

Semper fi, Nat! Semper fi!

(APPLAUSE)

My parents and my in-laws are here. Our siblings and their spouses. Our nieces and nephews, and hundreds of friends from Virginia and beyond.

(APPLAUSE)

I love seeing you front and center. Including my friend of 37 years, senior Senator Mark Warner. My great Governor Terry McAuliffe.

(APPLAUSE)

And my great friend and Congressman Bobby Scott.

(APPLAUSE)

We love you all.

And there you have it, the first 90 seconds of the most important speech this man has given to date and we know three things: He’s got a family, a son in the marines, and important political supporters in his home state. Only the second bit of information is really essential, and he could have easily woven it into the passage that came next (in which he thanks his family by name yet again). This, as I’ve said, is where I think the speechwriters intended the speech to begin:

Today, for my wife Anne and every strong woman in this country, for Nat, Woody, and Annella, and every young person starting out in life to make their own dreams real, for every man and woman serving our country in the military at home or abroad, for every working family working hard to get ahead and stay ahead, for my parents and in-laws and every senior citizen who hopes for a dignified retirement with health care and research to end diseases like Alzheimer’s.

(APPLAUSE)

KAINE: For every American who wants our country to be a beloved community where people are not demeaned because of who they are but rather respected for their contributions to this nation, and for all of us who know that the brightest future for our country is the one that we build together, and for my friend, Hillary Clinton, I humbly accept my party’s nomination to be vice president of the United States.

That’s some good, old-fashioned speech-making there. The subordinate clauses piling on top of one another heighten the drama of the moment—when will he say it? Oh say it, Senator, say it because we want to applaud you!

I can’t even imagine how disorienting it must be to walk out onstage and see an arena filled with noisy people waving signs at you, and knowing you’re about to give the speech of your career. I can absolutely understand the urge to engage in small talk until your heart stops racing and your knees stop shaking.

But those are the moments when you have to trust your speechwriter. Trust the process that got you to that podium with the speech that expresses your vision and values. Trust that we’ve built in all the thanks you’ll need to give—and that we’ve crafted an opening that will capture people’s attention from the moment you open your mouth.

That’s our job. So—whether you’re speaking in an arena or a ballroom, to ten thousand or a hundred—no thank yous. Please.