Monday, January 18, 2010

Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King

I studied Martin Luther King Jr. in a class taught by Paul Wellstone in the spring of 1985 at Carleton College. The class was called, “Social Movements and Protest Politics.” During the class we read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a brilliant exposition of the philosophy of non-violent resistance.

On this Federal Holiday marking King’s birthday, I found King’s letter and read it again. If we do anything to remember Martin Luther King’s birthday today, I commend all of us at a minimum to read this letter. The copy I read is here:

This letter had an important impact on me as I decided what to do with my life. King was writing to the white clergymen of Birmingham who were critical of the campaign that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was conducting to expose the racial injustices of the city.

What touched me when I studied this letter 25 years ago was King’s desire to reach out to these white clergymen. He appealed to a higher moral law to justify the non-violent resistant campaign that he was leading in Birmingham. King hoped that these white clergymen could see that it was only through non-violent resistance would the conditions in Birmingham change. He appealed directly to their heart and their own sense of morality.

As a junior in college this had a deep impact on me. I began to believe even more deeply that change in our world could not take place unless people could transcend the differences of race and class to work together for good. The seeds of these beliefs had been planted in me when I lived in inner-city Kansas City, Kansas as an elementary-age boy. While there I questioned how the rich, white people in Johnson County could live with themselves while people suffered from poverty in the neighborhood where I lived.

The ideal is quite simple: people transcending differences to work for good. The application is terribly hard. But the ideal that King communicated is worthy of our life’s devotion.

I eventually came to the conclusion that the church is the best institution in our world to help people overcome differences to work for good.

This ideal is so different than the approach Pat Robertson has taken in regards to the horrific earthquake in Haiti. Robertson saw the earthquake as an expression of God’s wrath for Haiti’s “pact with the devil.” I can’t help but reflect on the differences between Robertson and King.

Both looked at terrible suffering. Robertson responded by blaming the victims; King would have responded by helping the victims. Robertson responded by appealing to the devil’s work; King would have responded by appealing to a higher moral law. Robertson created division; King would have worked to bring people together. Robertson responded by controversy that divided people; if King had responded in a controversial way he would have done it to expose injustice in hopes that human hearts would be touched so that aid would be delivered.

On this national holiday let us all commit ourselves again to the simple, but profoundly difficult task of overcoming our differences to work for good.

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