Dr. King on a Leaderless Movement

Every year on the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, I like to reflect on his legacy and what it can teach us today, especially in light of climate change.

Of course, there’s so much we can learn from someone who had such courage, conviction, and faith in the face of such seemingly impossible odds and was able to create real change that would shape the world.

As he so famously put, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” While the racism and inequalities in society that Dr. King fought against still exist today, we’ve moved farther along that arc because of the wisdom, the leadership, the courage, the strategies, organizing principles, and tenacity that was displayed by the Civil Rights movement.

As a climate movement, also up against what seems at times to be impossible odds, we have so much we can learn from Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

This year, I’ve been reflecting on Dr. King’s concept of the leaderless movement. While so many would say that Dr. King was the leader of the Civil Rights movement, it was much more nuanced than that.

In an interview with Robert Warren on March 18, 1964, Warren proposed a theory to Dr. King:

“All revolutions as far as I know, in the past, have had the tendency, even the expressionist tendency, to move toward a centralized leadership — to move toward a man who has both power and symbolic function.”

To which Dr. King replied:

“I think a revolution can survive without this single centralized leadership…In our struggle, all of the leaders coordinate their efforts, cooperate, and at least evince a degree of unity…The fact is we have had, on the whole, a unified leadership, although it hasn’t been just one person. And I think there can be a collective leadership. Maybe some symbolize the struggle a little more than others, but I think it’s absolutely necessary for the leadership to be united in order to make the revolution effective.”

Similarly, in the fight against climate change, there is no centralized leadership. There is no one person who is the face of the movement. There are lots of faces, lots of organizations, lots of communities, that are taking on the struggle. And while there may be differences of strategy, as there certainly were during the Civil Rights movement, we must collectively remain united in our singular goal of creating a just transition to a sustainable society and healthy climate.

The face of the climate movement and the strategies of its organizers are different and yet complementary. From the great work of 350[dot]org to raise awareness of the science, block pipelines from being built, and launch a divestment movement that has moved $11 Trillion out of fossil fuels. To the Sierra Club whose Beyond Coal and Ready for 100 campaigns have helped close half of the country’s coal fired power plants, and gotten over 170 cities and counties and 9 States to commit to 100% renewable energy. To the Sunrise Movement that’s made the Green New Deal a conversation in every home in America. The Extinction Rebellion, started in the UK, that is using civil disobedience, to demand action. Greta Thunberg, who led a worldwide youth Climate Strike from schools. Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays, where she and others are getting arrested every Friday in front of the White House. Vote Solar that’s been fighting for the solar policies we need at the city and state level across this country for over a decade. GRID Alternatives that has trained 40,000 people to install solar on over 15,000 low income homes across the country. The NAACP’s Solar Equity Initiative working to ensure the benefits of solar reach all communities. Interfaith Power and Light, Green the Church, and others working to bring all faith communities into the climate movement. To Soulardarity putting up solar powered streetlights in a neighborhood in Detroit that was so far in debt the streetlights were repossessed. The Cowboy Indian Alliance of ranchers and indigenous communities working together to fight pipelines being built across their land. The Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Communities for a Better Environment fighting against the oil refineries, fracking, and drilling operations in places like Richmond and Wilmington, California. Powerhouse incubating and accelerating clean energy startups in Oakland. New Energy Nexus launching clean energy incubators and accelerators around the world. To the amazing organizations and businesses working to bring solar power to unelectrified communities — to those working to advance Electric Vehicle adoption — increase public transportation options- increase organic food production — reduce food waste- bike more — promote plant based diets, and more.

We could go on and on highlighting the incredible work of the organizations fighting for a sustainable, equitable future, on a healthy livable planet.

This is what gives me hope. To see that we’re not alone in this fight. While RE-volv is empowering people to bring solar to nonprofits in their communities, and that’s an important piece of the puzzle, it’s only a part of it. It’s when all of these people, groups, initiatives, and efforts, coalesce into a movement, that change is possible. This is what the civil rights movement looked like. And this is what it will take to be successful in the climate fight.

I’m eternally grateful to the legacy that Dr. King and all the brave souls that contributed to the Civil Rights movement have taught us.

And I’m inspired to see so many working for climate justice today who have learned from their success.

May we keep up the hard work, keep focused on the goal, and remember that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. Our job, like Dr. King’s, is to help it bend a little faster.

In solidarity,
Andreas Karelas

Andreas is the founder and Executive Director of RE-volv, a San Francisco based nonprofit, empowering people to fight climate change by supporting solar energy.