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7 Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

There are invaluable leadership lessons tucked within Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” After being imprisoned for eight days, he released this letter in response to a public statement from fellow clergymen requesting him to step down from his campaign. Their request came from concern, but King used his time in prison to reflect and respond to them in a published letter. His writing brought attention to the social atrocities occurring in Birmingham, and is now known as one of the most energetic and poised essays on social injustice.

Here is what The Atlantic wrote:

“King’s famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ published in The Atlantic as ‘The Negro Is Your Brother,’ was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. It stands as one of the classic documents of the civil-rights movement.”

So often, we are quick to pick out meaningful quotes and pithy statements from great works, but to read his complete letter is powerful and shows the full man behind the dream, the marches and the speeches. It gives us not just a look behind the curtain to his courage, intelligence and fire, but to leadership, love, justice and the brotherhood of community.

1. Choose Your Response to Criticism Wisely and Selectively

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’ Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”

2. Have a Clear, Concise and Convincing “Why”

“I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of ‘outsiders coming in’

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here …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. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. 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 …”

3. Know the Facts which Fuel and Strengthen the “Why”

“We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience …”

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Esther Laurie is a staff writer at churchleaders.com. Her background is in communication and church ministry. She believes in the power of the written word and the beauty of transformation and empowering others. When she’s not working, she loves running, exploring new places and time with friends and family. It’s her goal to work the word ‘whimsy’ into most conversations.