Leaders Describe King’s Influence on Governance
Providence, R.I.—Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, and James Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, have all drawn on Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and teachings for inspiration to guide their leadership style.
The officials examined how King influenced their lives at “What It Takes to Be a Leader … Lessons from the Life of MLK,” one of a series of events scheduled over two-and-a-half weeks at Providence College to honor the civil rights leader.
About 40 people attended the discussion, which was held in the Unity Center of the Slavin Center and sponsored by the Balfour Office for Multicultural Activities, the Department of Black Studies, the Office of Career Services, the Board of Multicultural Student Affairs, the Friars Club, Student Congress, and Board of Programmers.
Fung pointed out that King’s work started a legacy that made it possible for him to be elected as the first Asian-American mayor in Rhode Island’s history, and Taveras as Providence’s first Latino mayor.
“As we move toward today where you’re seeing persons of color in the seats that we hold … we’ve really come a long way from those days and the fights that Martin Luther King raised important awareness of,” Fung said.
The Cranston mayor said he has been inspired by a King saying: The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands during moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy.
Fung said he has faced controversy, especially after a Cranston high school student issued a First Amendment challenge to a prayer banner hanging in her high school.
“I supported having a prayer banner. I come out also in defense of the right to challenge what she believes is wrong,” Fung said.
But the outrage over the issue required him to divert public safety resources, he said.
“One girl, whether you agree with her or not, is afraid of being in school,” Fung said. “That’s not going to the teachings of Dr. King.”
King’s work opened doors
Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, said King would be thrilled to see the success of President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and the number of black head coaches in the National Football League, when at one point they would not be welcome as quarterbacks.
However, he believes the pastor and activist would be dismayed by the disparities that remain, in areas such as health, employment, and housing.
“Some of these things haven’t changed that much in 43 years since he’s passed away, and some of them have gotten worse,” Vincent said.
Vincent was born on Boston’s south side, just a few blocks from Boston University, where King studied divinity. He lived in a neighborhood targeted for an “urban renewal” that he described as “negro removal” --- essentially shunting black residents into public housing.
He was applying to colleges in 1968, the year of King’s assassination, and Vincent was accepted at Dartmouth College --- part of a wave of people of color across the country entering selective colleges and universities.
“All of us were getting an opportunity,” he said.
Vincent said his early experience with urban renewal motivated him to want to learn more about how government worked. He majored in government and later earned a graduate degree in planning.
“I wanted to make a difference, because Martin Luther King --- he died for everybody,” Vincent said. “He wasn’t my dad or uncle, but I was given the opportunity.”
Vincent pointed out that King led the civil rights movement at 33, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at 35, and was assassinated at 38.
“We can’t let his life be in vain,” he said.
King’s leadership shows us we need to be humble, Vincent said. Nor should one waiver or compromise on important issues.
“It might be tougher, it might be longer, but MLK didn’t compromise through even the worst conditions of the Jim Crow South,” he said.
Influence on a future mayor
Taveras, the Providence mayor, said he spent college days with an “I Have a Dream” poster of King on his dorm room wall --- the same one that hangs in the Unity Center now.
These days, he said he keeps a strip of paper on his desk with a King quote that reads Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter.
He pulled out his iPad to show a clip of a King speech given the day before he was killed.
Taveras discussed how King appealed to morality in that speech.
“When you may not have an air force or army, you have something else – you’ve got moral power,” the mayor said.
View video clips of the King leadership discussion.
-- Liz F. Kay