Relating the transitions in leadership from Moses to Joshua and from Martin Luther King Jr to the Civil Rights Movement, this article argues that it is imperative that prophetic leadership discerns leadership succession for a community, organization, or movement in order to fulfill more successfully its vision of the preferred future. It discusses the qualities necessary for both current and prospective leaders to increase the chances of a healthy leadership transition as well as the practices required to discern the next leader(s).
In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a speech famously known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in Memphis, Tennessee. He eerily and prophetically spoke about his impending death, which would prevent him from continuing to lead the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). The next day, on April 4th, standing on his balcony on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel, King was assassinated. His leadership of arguably the most culturally transformative movement in U.S. history came to a tragic halt. Once the dust settled after his funeral and a period of nationwide grieving, one question needed to be answered: “Who would now lead the movement?” Within a decade, the movement declined and eventually lost its potency and relevance. This dynamic raises the question of the movement’s preparedness for life after King. Was this a critical weakness in King’s leadership? Was the responsibility to prepare a successor to continue the vision of the CRM left to King?