Reflections on Historical Leadders
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Reflections on Historical Leaders

January 29, 2016

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. again this week, it is hard not to ask the what if question – what if Dr. King had survived the tumult of the late 1960s and lent his prophetic leadership to the nation and the world for many more decades? Even now, almost a half century after his assassination, he would only be 87, an age more and more Americans are not only reaching but at which they continue to make real contributions to their communities, churches, and polities. What issues, problems, and crises might King have helped us address and perhaps even resolve more effectively? How might the nation and the church be different today had we had the benefit of his presence rather than merely his memory? Such questions are not meant to denigrate the efforts of many to build upon King’s legacy; they are intended only to lament the loss of a great leader whose life was far too short and whose death brings sorrow yet.

Longevity in leadership is of course no guarantee or marker of continued effectiveness. Examples abound from every sphere of society – business, religion, politics, law, education – in which persons have managed to maintain power even while their leadership has brought diminishing returns. Fortunately, plenty of counterexamples may also be cited of long, distinguished careers in which the quality of service remained remarkably high or even grew with age. One thinks, for instance, of Congressional greats such as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. From before the War of 1812 to their deaths within four months of one another in 1852, they lent their extraordinary talents to the early American republic’s survival and growth. In fact, in retrospect, their accomplishments seem nothing short of staggering. Webster may be said to have left a major imprint on all three branches of the federal government, having served in both the House and Senate, been Secretary of State under three presidents, and argued more than 220 cases before the Supreme Court, many of them among the most important in U.S. constitutional history. Clay also served as Secretary of State, had four separate stints in the Senate, arguably made the Speaker of the House the second most powerful position in American government while filling that role in his thirties, and largely crafted the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850, key efforts to keep the Union intact. Both men suffered bitter disappointments throughout their long careers including three lost bids for the presidency apiece. And each man had significant character flaws. But those discouragements and limitations did not keep them from believing – and in their cases, accurately so – that they still had something valuable to offer the nation. That truth makes us wonder all the more what might have been if Martin Luther King was still with us.