Dr. King's Lessons on Leadership

January 19, 2015 12:28:00 PM EST / by John Fees


This weekend, I took the time to reread Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail that he composed on April 16, 1963.

Dr. King's letter addressed themes of social justice and explained his rationale for leading in a response to local clergy who, though they recognized injustice was real and present in Alabama, did not agree with Dr. King's timing or approach.

After reading the view of local clergy, Dr. King wrote his letter in the Birmingham Jail on scraps of paper and completed it on a legal pad provided by his defense attorneys. It is interesting to consider that an MBA program would require reading Dr. King's letter, but as I share below his words are powerful reminders that thewords and conduct of leaders are powerful. I encourage your to read the letter for yourself, but if you want some highlights then consider these words:

  • I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.


  • I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.


  • But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.


  • Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. 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.


  • For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."


  • The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.


  • There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.


  • One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."


  • How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.


Real leaders require this understanding of justice and the courage to articulate and demonstrate such conviction. What is interesting to me is that leadership is fundamentally defined by having the courage to express your views - despite opposition, despite fear, despite overwhelming odds. It is courage that defines leadership.Even thought it may not have the same impact as Dr. King, re-reading the letter reminds me that leaders of all organizations - be it colleges and universities, associations, businesses or our government - need similar courage. In big and small things. We need courage to speak the truth.

Though few of us in our work are called on to act with Dr. King's courage, in small ways we can guide our organizations by helping them remain true to universal themes such as Justice, Wisdom, Courage & Moderation.


In practice it helps if we also: Ask questions such as:

  • Is our decision honest and sincere?
  • Is our conduct transparent and fair for all concerned?

It is very difficult to appreciate the context for Dr. King's arrest, the violence and unrest that surrounded him.  He was patient but not tolerant of injustice.  His letter captures the many complex emotions, speaks about enduring values and illustrates the courage that is needed by anyone who assumes the mantel of real leadership.

Become inspired and take the time to read Dr. King's entire Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Find big and small ways to apply its truth to your work.

Topics: Student Life, college life, Transparency, leadership

John Fees

Written by John Fees

John Fees is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of GradGuard™. Fees is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he received a bachelors of science degree in History and is also a graduate of Harvard Business School where he completed a Masters in Business Administration. John Fees lives in Phoenix, Arizona and is married to Melissa Soza Fees, Ph.D. and is the father of five children. He is the Treasurer for the Arizona College Success Arizona, a Director of College Parents of America, Founding Director and investor in Tonto Creek Camp which provides service leadership experiences to 8,000 students annually. He is also an active member of University Risk Management and Insurance Association and the Professional Insurance Marketers Association.

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