The Only Thing We Can Change

Walter Murray and I were classmates at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) in 1985. We both had careers before seminary. I was a family therapist with Hispanic families in southern California. Walter had served as the first African-American, Affirmative Action Officer at Vanderbilt University.

We studied the impact Gandhi's nonviolent satyagraha ("truth-force") movement had on the foundational ethics that built and sustained the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.

Walter was deeply and personally involved in that terrible struggle, and he told me this story:

"One day we were beginning a civil rights march through Birmingham, Alabama. It was at the height of the conflict between civil rights workers and the Birmingham police. We prepared ourselves relentlessly, cultivating the discipline we would need to be strong enough to march - nonviolently - through the city.

"Bull Connor (the commissioner of public safety) had readied his men and dogs for a confrontation with the marchers. I took my place in line. Close by was my friend Marcus, an enormous football player. He must have been 6'4", 275 pounds. Kathy, his girlfriend- who looked small enough to fit under his arm - marched between us, so we could keep her safe.

"We started to march. As we walked, crowds of people came from everywhere. They started to shout at us, throw things at us, generally abuse and harass us. Still, we stayed in line, and kept marching.

"The crowds got bigger, and they got mean - real fast. We were terrified of getting hurt, even killed. But we were committed to doing this. Without violence. No matter what happened.

"Then - all at once - the police and the dogs were ordered to attack. Big men in uniforms with Billy clubs were swinging everywhere around us. One of the police, I still remember his face, so ugly with hate, looked to be coming right at me. Marcus tried to block him.

"But that policeman was full with fear and anger all mixed up. He just swung and screamed and kept coming at us, flailing his club like a rabid dog. One wild swing somehow managed to get past us, and landed square on Kathy's head. The sound of that crack turned my stomach. She just fell, her whole body crumpled like an old suit of clothes right there on the ground. I saw her head was bleeding.

"Marcus had trained all his life as a defensive tackle. He saw his girlfriend collapse, a heap of flesh and bone at his feet. Then, he turned around so fast - and looked straight at this cop. I just knew he was going to do the only thing he knew to do: smash that cop into the pavement so he never got up again.

"But then, he just stopped. And his eyes just looked, and looked. He stared right into the soul of that policeman, who stood there like he was paralyzed. He was completely lost, like he didn't know who he was, but he had a good idea what was about to happen to him. But Marcus just looked at him. It felt like he looked forever.

"This massive young man, a trained warrior, all his life drilled into him to protect those he loved - he reached out his arms, his muscles so tight you could see veins bulging in his biceps. Then, Marcus reached down. He picked up Kathy, and he held her bleeding head like you would hold a baby. With Kathy in his arms, he just looked at me, and I knew. We just had to keep on walking."

Walter said:

"I felt humble. The power of his presence, that deep moral courage. In that moment I knew I had a sacred responsibility to find that same, solid ground inside myself. We had all taken the same vow, a vow we could never break: To find inside ourselves the place where we would, at all costs, no matter how painful or dangerous the world around us, always stand firm."

"But that was who we had to be; we had to refuse any other way. We had to renounce violence of any kind. Otherwise, we wouldn't have been be any different - or any better - than they were."

"It was... our only hope for change."


"Leadership" has become sexy. It is the subject of choice in the business publishing world. You cannot pick up a book review or wander the Internet without stumbling into a cacophony of books, articles and blogs about being a real leader. Each one has its own particular formula, but they all guarantee if you do exactly what this CEO did, or do just like that famously successful entrepreneur, you will have everything you need to be a Fortune 500 CEO.

But here's the thing: People don't change by becoming someone else. People change by seeking, finding, and nourishing the best of who we already are. We work hard, we learn, we fail, we are passionately curious, and we keep going - especially through the dark, heart-shredding times. We reach deep into our true nature, the source of our ancient wisdom, courage, and inspiration. We all carry in us an inner knowing, an intuitive confidence that can lift us up, if only we can learn to stand our ground.

When we demand our best, we rise. We can see past the tsunami of all the immediate terrors and wounds that plague us every single day. And when we stand firm in the best of ourselves, upon that most noble, honorable, timeless ground of our being, we can see the way through. We know the path clear home.

This, Walter told me, is our only hope for change.

Thirty years later, I have yet to find anyone selling a better plan for real, lasting change than that.