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King's work across factions as resonant today as ever

POSTED: January 13, 2012 7:00 a.m.

In honor of the Martin Luther King jr. Holiday, the Kansas Leadership Center is offering newspapers these columns about King and civic leadership.


King’s work across factions as resonant today than ever

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described in one of his later sermons, how guards around his Birmingham jail cell sometimes sought out conversations with him about the racial whirlwind swirling around them.

The guards, King said, would begin by explaining the inappropriateness of public demonstrations, move on to Segregation’s virtues, and finally to why intermarriage so unforgivably offended them. Then King would have his say.

In these and many other conversations, we can see King’s tireless attempts to connect with people across divides. His core leadership competency of finding reasons to agree shines as brightly relevant today as ever, as the nation celebrates what would have been his 83th birthday.

King said he’d had a lengthy conversation with a guard when King said he discovered one of those connecting, common interests.

“We got down …to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning,” King said. “And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us.”

Laughter surfaces on the recording as King continues.

“You're just as poor as Negroes. And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. …. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."

As time passed and King reached civil rights milestones, his civic leadership interests and connections grew more universal.

He championed a poor people’s march, not a poor black people’s march. He opposed the Vietnam War. He traveled to Memphis to support sanitation workers.

When King said in his iconic August 1963 speech at The Lincoln Memorial that he dreamed about people of all races sitting down at the table of brotherhood, that wasn’t just pretty prose. He wanted to connect people to a common, important cause.

Discovering connecting interests can energize and inspire people. It can bring factions together. It’s one of the reasons the Kansas Leadership Center considers leadership an experimental and improvisational art.

It isn’t easy.

So when King said he dreamed of a day when “we will be able to work together, to pray together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together,” he wanted to unite a coalition able to place difference in their proper perspective.

Though King’s ideal vision may still elude us, society remembers him as a bridge builder. He’s remembered as someone who brought people together. He’s remembered as someone who thought deeply and cared broadly.

Deeply enough and broadly enough, that he could see even his captors as potential allies.

Mark E. McCormick is the Director of Communications at The Kansas Leadership Center.





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