Unknown Is Not Unimportant

People don’t know about Greensboro, Alabama.

At least not in in the way they know about other cities in the south: Montgomery, and Little Rock, and Birmingham, and Selma. People across America know those cities, in part, for the Civil Rights progress made there — progress earned through much pain.

But on a national scale, nothing significant happened in Greensboro. And Greensboro’s citizens are, in a way, glad for that.

In particular, its citizens are glad that March 21, 1968, is not a notable day in American history — primarily because of what certain leaders in Greensboro did not do.

They did not give in to intimidation.

And they did not sleep.

Instead, they stood at attention all night in a shotgun house, with shotguns pointed at Davis Street and Depot Street.

Outside, carloads of Klansman slowly rolled past. The same Klansmen that had just hours before torched two churches on the outskirts of town as they were hunting — literally — the man inside the house.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

King had spoken earlier that evening at St. Matthew’s Church in Greensboro, where meeting attendees received word that the Klan was planning to ambush him when he left town.

So attendees took matters into their own hands and took King into the family home of Theresa Burroughs, upon her insistence. There, King spent a tense, sleepless — but safe — night on the Burroughs’ wooden floors.

And the rest is not history — at least, not the tragic kind of history…the kind of history, tragedy, that would occur in Memphis on April 4, precisely two weeks after the comparative “non-events” in Greensboro.

This week, America pauses to rightfully honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. His leadership purpose, energy, courage, and sacrifice should be emulated. His far-reaching leadership achievements should be venerated.

But also to be emulated, also to be venerated, are the unknown people and the unknown places that were consequential to King’s impact. These everyday leaders in everyday towns not only agreed with King’s vision but also helped keep it alive — literally, in the case of Greensboro.

Can we be content with being that kind of leader? The kind whose passion is not contingent upon popularity? The kind who understands that being deeply effective is not contingent upon being widely known?

In popular culture, we are conditioned to equate influence with notoriety, sadly. For instance, we call a person with numerous “followers” an “influencer” without ever worrying about whether we should call such person a leader.

But for true, actual leaders, notoriety is only sometimes a residual — and never a requirement — of the work. Of course, this does not mean that leaders must avoid popularity. But this does mean that leaders must not aspire toward it.

Exhibit A in the case to prove that significance does not have to equal eminence is Greensboro, Alabama. People don’t know about Greensboro.

And that’s just fine by the good citizens of the city.

Because they know what didn’t happen there.

Unknown Is Not Unimportant was originally published in Horizon Performance on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.