By: Jen Heusel
The speeches and sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. literally changed my life. Those epiphanies we learn about in creative writing and literature courses? Yes, I experienced one. My epiphany happened in the third grade celebrating MLK Day. I felt a force that blew my mind, shook my soul, and possibly bruised my body. From the rubble emerged a puzzle of leadership. The image that Rev. King inspired was a leadership dedicated to the service of others, even those who disagree with you. Discovering his other works (sermons and writings), I learned about agape, or a persistent and disinterested love, in which one shows “love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return” (Stride Toward Freedom 105). In practice, agape is nonviolent direct action, or a radical love that speaks hard truths that get people uncomfortable and angry. As a model of leadership, Rev. King is a rich example of how one can lead with radical love.
In my recent reading of Rev. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I noticed how he modeled agape to address profound disappointment. I never thought intentionally about disappointment, but I have felt it. Most of the time when disappointment visits, I sulk with like-minded peers who help me vilify those who let me down. Very few times do I remember speaking directly to those who’ve disappointed me. I’m sure my anger was communicated and thus I was probably easily ignored. Most of the time, I stay with my disappointment and vacillate around anger, rage, and dismissal toward the offending individual. These strategies are not healthy leadership practices, generally, and they certainly are not demonstrating how to respond to disappointment with love towards others. Thankfully, Rev. King models a practice of addressing disappointment with one’s peers while maintaining the integrity of the beloved community (agape).
Rev. King wrote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail after he and others were arrested for violating the city’s newly established laws about demonstrating in public. While in jail with his thoughts and a newspaper, Rev. King read a letter published by eight white clergy, which criticized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) campaign to desegregate Birmingham. In their letter, the white clergy make “an appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense” towards Alabama’s racial issues. They condemn “outsiders” for bringing “extreme measures” to the city. Forced to sit with his disappointment, Rev. King wrote his reply in the form of a long letter, for “what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell” (Para. 38). His letter is a model of agape leadership in the face of disappointment.
I identify two issues central to Rev. King’s disappointment with the white clergy of Birmingham. The first is being called an “outsider.” Although the white clergy never mentioned Rev. King or SCLC directly, they nonetheless blamed “outsiders” for disrupting the local “progress” toward racial unity. Rev. King responds as an “insider” early and directly in his letter. He emphasizes his values as a minister and activist. Driven to carry “the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown” as other religious leaders have done (Para. 3), Rev. King calls on his fellow clergy to actively push against racially-motivated laws as unjust and immoral (Para. 15). The disappointment with his fellow clergy, who dismissed his insider credentials as both member of the clergy and US citizen, is strongly present, and he invites participation by identifying shared values.
The second disappointment centers on the complicity with the racial status quo. In their advocacy for “law and order,” the white clergy are passively accepting the laws that dehumanize black Americans. In particular, the white clergy question nonviolent direct action as being outside the democratic process. How disappointing! Rev. King responds by carefully explaining how SCLC followed the current process, where the process is broken, and how nonviolent direct action is part of the democratic process. He understood their cautious appeals as reactions to the discomfort caused by the creative tensions from nonviolent direct action. “You deplore the demonstrations” (Para. 5), he writes, but “I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure” (Para. 10). Providing descriptions of everyday moments that Black clergy and fathers, such as himself, often must navigate, but white folks are privileged to ignore, he says, “I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (Para. 11). With direct and loving explanations, Rev. King guides white moderates through their complicity — they are literally unable to see the inhumanity of the current legal process.
Disappointment is a fact of life. I feel disappointment in every part of my personal and professional lives. This feeling can leave me angry and bitter, which negatively impacts my leadership development. Realizing the inevitably of disappointment, Rev. King advocated “a process of self-purification” and mindfulness toward “the difficulties involved” with nonviolent direct action (Para 7). In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he took time with his emotions and then transformed the energy from this disappointment into radical candor. His direct critique of the white clergy (and other social/political moderates) stayed true to his values — freedom, spirituality, and love. As a model of democratic leadership, Rev. King shows us how to practice agape even in the face of disappointment.