Project Management Institute

Digital Exclusive: Inspiration From John Lewis and the Civil Rights Movement

By Shari Rathet

Anyone looking for inspiration or uplift can find them in abundance in the life of U.S. Congressman John Lewis who died on 17 July 2020. Something that may not be well known is that Lewis and many activists from his generation were inspired to join the civil rights movement by a comic book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” (1957). The comic not only told the story of the Montgomery bus boycott that led to desegregation of the bus system, but was also an instruction manual for nonviolent change.

A glancing knowledge of the bus boycott might leave us with the idea that it was spontaneous, the result of events that ensued when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. But Mrs. Parks was not the first to refuse to give up her seat and a great deal of planning had led to that moment. That planning, and the bravery and fortitude of the Black community in Montgomery, Alabama, led to the success of the boycott. Looking back, we can see that the leaders of the boycott did a lot of things we now consider essential to good project management.

The Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of Black professionals, protested conditions on the buses but had been waiting for the right person around whom to build the boycott. Rosa Parks was highly respected in the community and had worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The WPC immediately initiated a communication plan, printing 35,000 leaflets and engaging students to distribute them. After a successful one-day boycott, a project team, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), was formed with Martin Luther King Jr. as president. Stakeholders were engaged throughout the city’s network of Black churches and resource planning took the form of an intricate carpool network to provide alternate transportation for Black workers.

Risk management was of immense importance. Participants in the boycott faced harassment and threats of violence; the King home was bombed in retaliation. But King had absorbed the lessons of nonviolent protest from the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Additional risk mitigation measures included a simultaneous court challenge, shaping the message through mass media and the solidarity of the protestors. Essential to the undertaking was the acknowledgement that some risks present opportunities and are worth taking.

Afterwards, King’s wife Coretta said that the original scope of the project had been a “more humane system of segregation.” But with Dr. King as an effective leader, able to inspire and motivate the community through mass meetings, the boycott was sustained long enough for segregated seating on buses to be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A few years later, another project took shape in the form of a comic book, published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a group devoted to nonviolent activism. With the cooperation of Martin Luther King Jr., the comic book was published and distributed through churches and schools in the South. It reached the hands of younger activists, including John Lewis, who used the lessons learned from Montgomery in the next phase of the civil rights movement, desegregating lunch counters across the South. The comic book also found its way to other countries and other movements, such as the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Leaders like John Lewis inspire us to activism but history teaches us that we must have a plan and set goals to ensure success. He challenged young leaders, “You must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble” and “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”

Photo of Civil Rights activist and late Senator John Lewis