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“Idolizing Just One Person Undermines The Struggle”


This week, The New Yorker has an exceptional article about pioneers in the civil rights struggle, accompanied by quite a few images.

I was particularly struck by this passage:

“One thing that I think the history books,and the media, have gotten very wrong is portraying the movement as Martin Luther King’s movement, when in fact it was a people’s movement,” Diane Nash, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said. “If people understood that it was ordinary people who did everything that needed to be done in the movement, instead of thinking, I wish we had a Martin Luther King now, they would ask, ‘What can I do?’ Idolizing just one person undermines the struggle.”

In community organizing, we often taught and discussed the long-term dangers to social change brought about by idolizing charismatic leaders.

As a teacher, though, it’s easy to lose sight of that important concept when dealing with trying to help students learn so many other things.

We’re in the middle of teaching a unit on Nelson Mandela now in our mainstream ninth-grade English classes, and this passage is prompting me to think about how I can integrate a bit of discussion on the role of others in that country’s liberation struggle.

How do you avoid just teaching the “cult of personality” or the “cult of the hero” in your class?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Good stuff Larry. If it is true that all people/societies look for a leader, then it becomes apparent why idolizing a persona is natural process. Someone either takes the lead or is made to lead.

    Gandhi, King, Mandela – they forged a movement of the masses. Neither could exist without the other. We idolize because we seek heroes in the midst of turmoil.

    The media attempts to create heroic figures that the masses will follow but that seldom unites and usually divides. Yet the media always plays a part in the development of heroes and thus the idolization of people over the movement.

    The risk that is run when creating idols is that the principles of the movement can be easily forgotten. Example: is US transitioning from Rule of Law to Rule of Leader? Presidents over the past 50-75 years have usurped more authority than originally intended by Constitution (regardless of political party). The movement of a democratic republic is forgotten by most in deference to the belief that the President is the leader of a nation rather than the servant of the people.

    So I handle the issue (Mandela starts next week) by saying one cannot exist without the other. Movements need leaders and leaders need movements of people. Does history make the man vs does man make the history debate is good to use.

  2. I think someone I know sent me this link because of a thought that has been on my mind as an educator trying to bring out the best in Black History Month. Simply, that if we think of heroes who did amazing, out there, things only they could do, or worse yet (see some versions of Rosa Park’s civil disobedience on the Montgomery bus service) almost accidental, we lose the opportunity to teach something very useful – so, when faced with injustice, what exactly do you do?

  3. Ah, there’s the rub!

    How do we celebrate our leaders with creating cults of personality and other deadly pitfalls of charismatic leadership?

    Personally, the John Edwards saga illuminates this issue in a poignant 21st century way. Good causes like universal health insurance can be held back by poor leadership. And, to be candid, even Dr. King was more radical social leader and less of a puritan paragon than usually portrayed in our too sanitized history textbooks.

    So what is to be done? I like having students interview older relatives to interview about turbulent eras, read old letters, and discover local history. Mass movements, after all, include millions of individual choices, actions, and votes. Do they have any family pictures from demonstrations? How did local traditions and laws change during an era? Was there a local flash point in the struggle?

    Finally, I’m quite fond of an old Goethe quote: “One cannot always be a hero, but one can always be a human.”

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  5. This has always bothered me deeply. I currently live in North Carolina and went through a recent street re-naming wherin they voted to change the name of the road to MLK. Now in a town that has its own civil rights heroes and in a state that has famous civil rights heroes, that just seems wrong. But, then again, MLK may be a more neutral figure.

    On a different note, I had a mighty struggle with the idolizing of King when I was teaching middle school. As Eric Roth points out, I was – albeit naively – trying to humanize King, and my students reacted very negatively and almost aggressively. We’re not doing any budding social change agents any favors by pretending they need to be perfect to effect positive change.

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