“I was alone in that crowded room.” ~the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Quotations from Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr.
There comes a moment in every leader’s life when you have to take a stand––on your own. We spend a lot of time emphasizing the importance of delegation––of sharing power and authority with others. There are also times when people expect you to walk the walk. Martin Luther King shared one of these moments in Birmingham, Alabama during the famous lunch counter sit-ins of 1963… Protesting the legally-sanctioned discrimination at local restaurants, civil rights activists occupied lunch counters throughout Birmingham knowing full well they were violating local ordinances and would be arrested. The strategy was to flood Birmingham’s jails. The thought was that with enough people in jail, the nation and particularly the federal government would have to pay attention and would intervene to end these discriminatory and de-humanizing practices. As of early April, as many as 500 people had been jailed. Unfortunately, funds were exhausted to bail-out the protesters. The notorious tactics of police dogs, billy clubs and fire hoses unleashed by the notorious Bull Connor were having their intended effect. The movement was becoming rapidly demoralized. On Good Friday morning in April, the decision had been made. Dr. King would make a powerful symbolic gesture and offer himself for arrest and jail. He met with a group of organizers… “As we talked, a sense of doom began to pervade the room. I looked about me and saw that, for the first time, our most dedicated and devoted leaders were overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness.” The complicating factor, however, was that the movement needed money to bail the protestors out of jail. The cash had run dry and King was the most powerful fundraiser. If he were to be arrested, they’d have no access to their most powerful benefactors. “I sat there, conscious of twenty-four pairs of eyes. I thought about the people in jail. I thought about the Birmingham Negroes already lining the streets of the city, waiting to see me put into practice what I had so passionately preached. How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community? What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning sacrifice and then excused himself?” This is when the leader must walk the walk. It is not enough to just talk the talk. This is a lonely moment. “There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself…
"I was alone in that crowded room.” King walked into an adjacent room to find some quiet. There he made the decision that he must walk the walk––he would go to jail.
When I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. site in Atlanta, I was particularly moved by a display of Dr. King’s “jail clothes.” This was a set of work clothes and boots he wore when he knew he would be arrested… “I pulled off my shirt and pants, got into work clothes and went back to the other room to tell them I had decided to go to jail.” He then led a march from the Zion Hill church. Hundreds of people had turned out in support––and a number of Bull Connor’s cops were there to greet them. After about an eight block march, gaining supporters along the way, King and his entourage were arrested. Dr. King was isolated in solitary confinement. After more than 24 hours alone Clarence Jones, a friend and attorney for the movement arrived with some news. Harry Belafonte had raised more than $50,000 for bonds and promised he could get whatever they needed. King’s willingness to walk the walk had inspired people all over the country and brought much needed attention and credibility to the cause. These moments when you have to stand alone, often contrary to the pleading of well-meaning and well-intended allies are often the most important and defining moment’s in a leader’s life. They are also the most difficult. But if you truly embrace the responsibility of leadership, you must be willing to face these moments with commitment and courage. That’s the only way to earn the sincere respect and trust of the people you serve. It’s the most powerful way to inspire others to action. “I don’t know whether the sun was shining at that moment. But I know that once again I could see the light.”
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