This week we focus on the intellectual aspects of leadership. True leadership requires reading, researching and thinking about issues of concern to you on a continual basis, so that when the time comes, you can speak from a foundation of knowledge.
This was illustrated at the highest level by Dr Martin Luther King Jr in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King was arrested and placed in jail in Birmingham, Alabama for leading coordinated peaceful marches and sit-ins. While in jail, eight white clergymen wrote a letter to the Editor of the Birmingham newspaper titled “A Call to Unity” which argued that Dr. King should stop leading protests and should take his issues to court. This angered Dr. King, who took the newspaper that was sneaked to him, and wrote a response directly on the newspaper (as he had no paper supplies in jail). His response, titled “Why we can’t wait” defends the strategy of non-violent resistance to social injustice. It has become one of the most famous letters for civil rights movements historically.
Most inspirational is that he wrote the letter from the top of his head, without any reference books or citations. Dr. King was a true intellectual who constantly studied both the good and bad, including history and literature. And when the time came, he wrote from his head and his heart to produce some of the most influential and widely read works on social justice, including this Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Here are a few of our favorite excerpts from MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
“It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
“You may well ask, “Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. We therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”