Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, we pause to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy of leadership and service.

I find it particularly moving that incoming president Biden and vice-president Harris have called for this day to be a Day of Service in America. What a great step in turning down the volume in today’s political discourse. 

There is no question that Dr. King was a gifted speaker and a powerful leader. I thought I’d share three leadership lessons we can learn from him.

Speak the truth. Many people did not want to hear what Dr King had to say. He said them anyway. Leaders face reality, don’t sugar-coat it and don’t make excuses.  One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King is this: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Senator Mitt Romney said last week that the best way to show respect for the voters who are upset by the election outcome is to tell them the truth.

Robert F. Kennedy addressed the nation on the night that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. He spoke the truth – and he pointed to a way forward. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black–considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible–you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization–black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love….

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

Leaders look forward: Leaders acknowledge where we are, but also see where we can go – and how to get there.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  

Are we there yet? No, we are not. In fact, 2020 showed us some deep racial disparities that continute to exist in this country. But, it also gave us another opportunity to acknowledge where we are as a country and begin (again) to work towards Dr. King’s dream. The election of Reverend Raphael Warnock from the “red hills of Georgia” to the U.S. Senate is another step towards achieving that dream. Warnock preached a sermon yesterday from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and among other things, spoke of the current backlash towards racial equity: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, parity and equity and equality may feel like oppression,” he said. 

Leaders do not descend to the unethical and immoral.  Leaders don’t have to resort to dirty tactics. Good leaders  do not resort to hateful, violent tactics. Dr King admonished his followers:

There is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.  

King and his followers were met with violence in many forms: dogs, fire hoses, police batons and even lynchings. He knew the betrayal that came from the silence of his friends and yet he still preached nonviolence and the courage of convictions. In an adress delivered at the National Cathedral in March, 1968, he said: On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. He concluded that sermon by noting that “however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, however violent explosisions are…’We shall Overcome.”