Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the Washington civil rights march and Dr. Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream speech.” I have listened to that speech countless times and it never fails to inspire me. David Brooks wrote a wonderful tribute in the New York Times yesterday analyzing the leadership approach of Dr. King where “the idea was not only to change society but to work an inner transformation.”
The best leaders, the ones that inspire us in public life or in our work, are those men and women who are not afraid to imagine a better way and are continuously striving for the “inner transformation” required to lead others to an improved future.
On this anniversary I would like to remember an educational leader who was inspired by Dr. King and fought bravely for his principles: Dr. R. Wiley Brownlee.
The year was 1971, my first as a school psychologist in Michigan’s Willow Run School District. On April 3, the eve of the third anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, the school board met to consider its options for honoring the life and work of Dr. King. Dr. Brownlee , the high school principal, supported the formal recognition of Dr. King’s achievements but he faced angry and fierce opposition from some people in the community.
Willow Run – which is located 35 miles west of Detroit – had a long history of racial polarization and this issue exacerbated those tensions. (Just four years earlier Detroit had been the site of some of the bloodiest race riots in our nation’s history, leaving 43 people dead and 7200 arrested.)
On his way home from that April 3 board meeting armed men in hoods forcibly pulled Dr. Brownlee over to the side of the road. They put a shotgun to his head and applied hot tar to his body, from his shoulders to his feet.
The crime, which was eventually linked to a group led by Robert Miles, the Grand Dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, is dryly summarized in the Global Terrorism Database under ID#197104030003:
“Dr. R. Wiley Brownlee, high school principle (sic) and promoter of racial coexistence was struck down and kidnapped by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Ypsilanti, Michigan, United States. Dr. Brownlee was released later in the night but not before he was tarred and feathered.”
Dr. Brownlee was assaulted by a vigilante hate group because he advocated the celebration of Dr. King’s legacy.
The ordeal attracted national media attention because it dramatized our nation’s continuing struggle to come to terms with the murder of its most prominent civil rights leader by an avowed white racist.
Dr. Brownlee had been inspired and transformed by Dr. King’s message and the Klan’s crude attempt to intimidate and silence him failed. What wasn’t reported was that after the dust settled and the national media moved on, Dr. Brownlee fought on. He continued to argue that the entire community, white and black, should honor the contribution and sacrifice made by Dr. King.
His progressive attitude was unacceptable to the majority of the Willow Run School Board and he was fired.
Dr. Brownlee’s thinking did eventually take hold – but it would take another few decades. President Reagan signed legislation to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday in 1983, but it wasn’t until 2000 that it was officially observed in all 50 states.
I have a photograph of Dr. Brownlee from that April night 42 years ago. He had come back to the school after his assault to seek help and clean up, when a senior named Rod Pearce took this picture. Tar is clearly visible on his hands, pants, shoes and shirt. When Dr. Brownlee showed up for work the next morning, undeterred and ready to resume his fight, it was an unforgettable moment for the staff and students, an indelible demonstration of determined leadership.
Today we honor the memory of the extraordinary civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His prophetic words continue to be a gift to a country that has made much progress, but still has much more to do on the journey toward equality. Let us also take a moment to remember and praise all of those leaders who, like Dr. Brownlee, took to heart Dr. King’s ideals; leaders who transformed themselves and led the struggle in their local communities for an inclusive America.
A different version of this piece was first published by WBUR’s Cognoscenti on January 21, 2013 titled as “My Boss Was Tarred & Feathered by the KKK”