April 16 was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I recently re-read the letter and was once again taken by King’s ability to speak with poetic persuasiveness under the most difficult and brutal of circumstances. In this profoundly significant letter, King makes the case for the nonviolent civil rights movement and challenges his “fellow clergymen” for their failure of moral leadership.
I was still percolating on King’s letter last week when I spoke at a local government association conference in Kansas on “The Future of Local Government”. So I took the opportunity to visit Monroe Elementary School in Topeka — the focus of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v Board of Education, in which “separate but equal” facilities were ruled unconstitutional. The essence of the ruling was that by its very nature, separate is NOT equal, and therefore is unconstitutional.
And of course, as we all know the educational facilities in Topeka and across America were not just separate, but blazingly unequal. “Separate but equal” was little more than a leadership masquerade in which far too many civic, religious, and political leaders made believe that an alternate reality existed which bore no resemblance to the appallingly real world these children were actually living in every morning when they attended school.
As I walked the halls of Monroe Elementary and compared it with photos of black children attending the dilapidated “separate but equal” school at the time, I began to ponder some core questions about the essence of civic leadership.
What causes otherwise well-intended and ethical leaders to lose their moral compass and abandon the good of the entire community in exchange for mean-spirited and destructive behavior?
It is easy for us to simply assign blame to the leaders in Birmingham and other communities at the time by calling them racists while we tell ourselves that we would never be that kind of leader. But that may be letting all of us off too lightly.
The simple fact is that as leaders, we are constantly tempted to sacrifice what we know is right for approval (or more often, avoidance of criticism) of the group. Indeed, King wrote that:
“Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture, but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals”.
In other words, even when we know in our hearts the right thing to do, the need for approval or fear of criticism tempts us to do the wrong thing. And in today’s morally bankrupt political culture, that criticism can be vicious, which tempts us even more intensely to sin by silence. As Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”
We are in an age in which ignorance is celebrated, in which criticism of public servants is brutal and unyielding, and in which leadership courage is in short supply. Take the time to read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail again right now. Read it through the lens of today’s issues, of today’s political conflict, of today’s leadership crisis in your own community.
The specific context is 1963, but the lessons in courageous leadership are still crisp and compelling in 2013.