In preparation for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wanted to learn more about the man we remember, mourn, and celebrate each January. So I headed to the library and rented one of King’s classic works: Why We Can’t Wait.
This book was written in retrospect of the Birmingham Campaign of 1963, a movement organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to shed light on the integration efforts of Birmingham African Americans. Throughout its pages, King eloquently discusses the causes of that momentous summer as well as its many triumphs toward civil rights in both Birmingham and beyond. Additionally, the book highlights King’s fervent conviction that racial equality and reconciliation could no longer wait to be achieved.
As I read, I quickly realized that King’s thoughts, descriptions, and anecdotes would provide a wealth of directions in which to take this blog. However, one theme in particular stood out to me, and that was servant leadership. Those words get thrown around a lot on the DBU campus, sometimes to the point where they begin to mean very little to us. But the fact remains that servant leadership is integral to mirroring the character of Christ, and what better way to learn it than studying servant leaders of the past?
While King demonstrated servant leadership in a variety of situations throughout the campaign, there is one moment that stands out as a beacon to guide those striving toward servant leadership. It came in the late spring of 1963. Just as the Birmingham Campaign was gaining momentum and attention, there came news that threatened the entire movement: the bondsman who had previously been supplying bail for all arrested demonstrators would be unable to continue this service. In the thirtieth room of the Gaston Motel, twenty-five prominent leaders of the campaign sat and questioned whether to proceed as planned and personally participate in demonstrations despite the new lack of bail money. With regard to this moment, King writes:
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? (King 79-80).
Undoubtedly, there were a host of reasons for King and his fellow leaders not to put themselves on the front lines and at risk of arrest. If they did, who would take up the torch to rally and lead the remaining demonstrators? Who would stand at the pulpits on Easter Sunday and preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection, which gave so many African Americans the hope they needed to challenge injustice? And perhaps the most frightening question of all, who would work tirelessly to secure another source of bail, which would be needed to release both leaders and hundreds of wrongly imprisoned demonstrators?
King had no answers to these pressing questions, and as he sat pondering them, avoiding arrest would have clearly seemed the wisest course of action. But this was not the decision he made. Instead, King told his fellow leaders, “‘I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from. But I have to make a faith act’” (King 81). Instead of excusing himself, King made a bold decision of faith in the face of uncertainty, which ultimately led to his imprisonment alongside the Birmingham demonstrators.
King acted as a servant by coming alongside his people as an equal, struggling toward a common goal. He displayed leadership by making a difficult decision and encouraging others to follow his example of faith. While some might argue that King’s decision to participate in the Birmingham demonstrations was unwise, the fruits of King’s imprisonment speak otherwise. Much like Paul, King’s time in jail was used by God in mighty ways. There, King drafted his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he respectfully addressed and rebuked those who did not support the nonviolent direct-action movement.
Countless positive outcomes resulted from the servant leadership of King and many others during the Birmingham Campaign. Some of these include strides toward the desegregation of lunch counters and other public areas, plans to hire African Americans on a non-discriminatory basis, actions to release all persons wrongfully jailed for their participation in the campaign, and avenues for better communication between African Americans and Whites. Truly, without King’s willingness to be a servant leader, the city of Birmingham, and indeed America, would not be what they are today. While it is sometimes hard to believe, never doubt that God can and does call people like you and me to be servant leaders who change communities, cities, states, countries, and with enough faith, the world.
Written by Meredith
King, Jr. Martin L. Why We Can’t Wait. 1964. Beacon Press, 2010.
To check availability or place a hold on Why We Can’t Wait at the DBU Vance Memorial Library, click here.
To find other works by King, click here.