1st Prize High School Category, "Moral Leadership" Essay Contest, 2013
By Gabriel Rosen
January 31, 2014
Gabriel Rosen is 17 years old and a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. "As a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, I've had the opportunity to lead the school's Young Democrats in efforts to involve students in the democratic process, linking our group with city and state affiliates."
Essay Topic: What Does Moral Leadership Mean to You?
The Enduring Beacon of Moral Leadership
Moral leadership is the transcendence of political realities by a person of conscience in the pursuit of a grand ideal. I define moral leadership as such because the annals of history, though saturated with the exploits of leaders seeking fame or power, are shaped by the work of those who defiantly held onto their ideals, no matter the political cost. One need only look to the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Woodrow Wilson, and Wendy Davis, among other visionaries, to understand the great debt that we owe moral leaders. The uncompromising idealism of such leaders continues to guide new generations onto the path of righteousness and has already paved the way toward a brighter future for all of humanity.
Martin Luther King Jr. once eloquently stated, "There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right." This is the epitome of moral leadership—for, as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the segregated American South of the mid-20th century, King knew well the risks of challenging the status quo, but he refused to back down from his ideals and valiantly led the boycott of Montgomery, Alabama's discriminatory bus lines in 1955. Continuing with his co-founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, King was on the front lines of the morality-based struggle to change society. Out of the many brave men and women who participated in the struggle for civil rights, King was unique in that he advocated for the use of nonviolent civil disobedience in order to effect a morally upstanding change in Southern society. King did this despite the constant threats of physical violence from various racist groups. Consequently, instead of stooping to their level, King raised his head high and resisted the hate-mongers with a rhetoric of love for his fellow man, rather than further inflame the racial tensions of his era. This is best exemplified in his "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963, when he sounded the clarion call for the peaceful attainment of racial unity. Furthermore, when King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he cemented his status as a symbol for brotherhood among all who sought freedom, equality, and justice. It was King's great moral stature that helped him to unify many factions into a consolidated front against racial injustice. With King's assassination in 1968, it seemed that the Civil Rights Movement would collapse into violence. However, the moral guidance of King had already influenced hundreds of thousands of individuals to peacefully carry on the struggle for civil rights, through political lobbying, voting-rights reform, affirmative action, and social activism—preserving the nonviolent nature of his grand cause. It was thus King's exemplary moral leadership that guided the Civil Rights Movement to success in securing the liberties that had been unjustly withheld from African-Americans and minority communities in general.
Moral leadership does not necessarily arise in the morally perfect; for example, President Woodrow Wilson was an exemplar of globalized moral leadership but suffered a blindness to domestic ills, like the Jim Crow laws and poll taxes of his time. However, in 1918, amid the maelstrom of violence that the First World War had become, Wilson set forth a roadmap for sustainable global peace with the declaration of his "Fourteen Points." This idealistic doctrine was centered on the principle "that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, [and] be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world…" This declaration of a moral framework for international democratic collaboration became a beacon for millions suffering under the yoke of tyrants and yearning for popular sovereignty. Given the opposition of other world leaders and the U.S. Congress, it would have been politically expedient for Wilson to call for the imposition of a victor's peace upon Germany; yet, he held fast to his beliefs and continued to fight for the ideals encapsulated within his "Fourteen Points." His moral rectitude thus set his idealist plan on an existential collision course with the overwhelming desire for vengeance that gripped the world. Consequently, as the treaty negotiations wore on, Wilson found himself losing more and more ground to his increasingly jingoistic partners. Despite these setbacks, Wilson never gave up his struggle for a world united by peace and defined by democratic brotherhood. As soon as the Treaty was ratified by Germany, Wilson devoted the rest of his life to lobbying for American ratification—which would have resulted in the inclusion of the United States into the newly formed League of Nations. Unfortunately, his efforts were rebuffed by a reactionary Congress—thus dooming the League to failure. With Wilson's death in 1924, it had appeared that the fight for international democratic idealism was doomed to fade into obscurity, much like the Civil Rights Movement appeared doomed to deteriorate into violence after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Contrary to expectations, the moral strength of the ideals that Wilson fought for, much like those of King's, inspired the luminaries at the 1945 San Francisco Conference to usher in a new era of global cooperation with the drafting of the United Nations charter. Thus Wilson's valiant efforts for the institution of a sustainable global peace, though stymied by the conservatism of his time, provided the beacon by which future generations were inspired to finish what he had started.
The lofty standards by which moral leadership is judged are not solely to be found within the domain of historical paradigms. On June 25, 2013, Texas State Senator Wendy Davis took up the mantle of moral leadership when she courageously filibustered for 11 hours a stringent anti-abortion bill that Governor Rick Perry hoped to push through in a special session of the state legislature. Davis's potent act of defiance successfully delayed the bill's passage and sparked a national dialogue about the rights of women to maintain sovereignty over their own bodies. In directly challenging the status quo with her filibuster, Davis took an immense political risk. The State of Texas is currently one of the most conservative in the United States, with Republicans in control of both houses of the State Legislature and the governorship. However, during President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, Texas showed signs of turning Democratic thanks to a growing Latino population and the success of voter-mobilization efforts. The political climate of Texas is still decidedly Republican, as Democrats, generally in favor of women's choice, only maintain a tenuous presence in the state, representing 39 percent of the Texas Senate and 37 percent of the Texas House of Representatives. In short, the Texas Democrats were forced to remain silent on certain issues lest they trigger a conservative backlash and risk losing the state completely. Even in the face of this political dilemma, Davis made the bold move to break the silence on women's issues and uphold her ideals, thus cementing her status as a moral leader in political system that favors compliance over an ethical choice.
The work of such visionaries as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi show that when ethical choice is denied to an entire nation, moral leaders find it imperative to stand up for those who have been silenced. As a member of the African National Congress since the 1940s, Nelson Mandela courageously fought against the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. His outspoken defiance of the government resulted in countless arbitrary and unjust measures taken against him, culminating in the infamous Rivonia Trial. As a result of this show trial, Mandela spent 40 years imprisoned on Robben Island, where he became an international symbol of the struggle for justice and equality. After the force of his moral position shook the South African establishment to the point of breaking, Mandela was freed and later became the country's first democratically elected president. In power, Mandela again took up the mantle of moral leadership by refusing to give in to any temptations for revenge, and instead championed racial harmony and reconciliation of former enemies within South Africa, thus fulfilling his lifelong ideals. Mandela, and King as well, had been inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who had led the successful nonviolent struggle for India's post-Second World War independence from Great Britain, becoming the embodiment of moral leadership for millions of people around the globe.
It can thus be seen that moral leadership can take on many forms: the activist openly defying an oppressive government, the idealist fighting political inertia, the politician risking his or her career to defend equality. The global impact of moral leadership cannot be understated. With the moral choices made by leaders throughout history continuing to illuminate the politics of today, our own choices can lead humanity to a brighter future.