Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a silhouette of Marting Luther King Jr.

Leadership Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King

“If we are to have peace on earth… our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

These words from a 1960s sermon were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a minister, humanitarian, and a leader. More than fifty years later, we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis of leadership that might benefit from lessons for a more peaceful world. As leaders in the Gonzaga tradition, we are called to listen, to discern, and to decide who we will be and how we will influence the many conflicts and complex challenges of our time.

Lessons can be learned from many of the renowned leaders who have worked for greater human flourishing. Their names may be more or less familiar, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Gandhi, Hiawatha, Dolores Huerta, Helen Zia, and others. The story of Ruby Bridges will be the focus of a play written by a Gonzaga student this spring. In 1960, at the age of six, Ruby was the first African American student to be integrated into an elementary school. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education to end racial segregation in schools, states such as Louisiana did not immediately comply. There was an all-white elementary school located a short distance from Ruby’s family home and in order to attend, she and other African American students would have to pass an entrance exam. Although five African American students passed that exam, two decided to remain in their segregated schools due to safety concerns. Ruby was escorted to the court-ordered desegregated school by her mother and four federal marshals every day until the end of the school year. Only one teacher would accept Ruby into class and Ruby was the only student in class for the entire year. Protests not only came from others attending the school, they also came in the form of economic harm to her family. Ruby’s grandparents lost their farm, her father lost his job, and the local grocery store would not sell to her mother. Ruby did graduate from a desegregated high school, married, and had a family. She also became a successful travel agent, author and speaker.

Even though she was a child, Ruby Bridges and her family demonstrated principled leadership and courage through nonviolence.  To overcome poverty and racism, in addition to other evils, King tells us that we must learn to develop the six principles of nonviolence mindset and follow the six steps of nonviolent social change. The King Center describes the basic principles of nonviolence as:

PRINCIPLE ONE: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

PRINCIPLE TWO: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.

PRINCIPLE THREE: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.

PRINCIPLE FOUR: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

PRINCIPLE FIVE: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative.

PRINCIPLE SIX: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.

In our Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm and our Master’s in Organizational Leadership program, we learn through experience, reflection, and action. The six steps of nonviolent social change come from King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” where he focuses on “love in action.”

INFORMATION GATHERING: To understand and articulate an issue, problem or injustice facing a person, community, or institution you must do research. You must investigate and gather all vital information from all sides of the argument or issue so as to increase your understanding of the problem. You must become an expert on your opponent’s position.

EDUCATION: It is essential to inform others, including your opposition, about your issue. This minimizes misunderstandings and gains you support and sympathy.

PERSONAL COMMITMENT: Daily check and affirm your faith in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. Eliminate hidden motives and prepare yourself to accept suffering, if necessary, in your work for justice.

DISCUSSION/NEGOTIATION: Using grace, humor and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.

DIRECT ACTION: These are actions taken when the opponent is unwilling to enter into, or remain in, discussion/negotiation. These actions impose a “creative tension” into the conflict, supplying moral pressure on your opponent to work with you in resolving the injustice.

RECONCILIATION: Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action. Each act of reconciliation is one step close to the ‘Beloved Community.’

How do our loyalties transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation?  There are many ways to observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and live as leaders for the common good. Parades, performances, and prayer vigils will be held throughout the country in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. How will each of us listen to these lessons, discern our calling, and decide how to respond to what King identified as “life’s most persistent question” – What are we doing for others?

These insights on the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were written by Kristine F. Hoover, Ed.D., an Associate Professor at Gonzaga University’s School of Leadership Studies and the Director of the Institute for Hate Studies.  Dr. Hoover teaches in the online Master’s in Organizational Leadership program which offers courses in Change Leadership, Global Leadership, Servant Leadership, and Strategic and Organizational Communication.

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