In this episode, I want to highlight the pivotal role that negotiation often plays in leadership. It is not enough for leaders to have influence. An effective leader needs to have influence – yes – but you need to negotiate your way to change.
One example I like to illustrate for this point comes from Martin Luther King Jr. – the celebrated civil rights leader from the mid-20th century in America.
In this episode, I want to highlight the pivotal role that negotiation often plays in leadership. It is not enough for leaders to have influence. An effective leader needs to have influence - yes - but you need to negotiate your way to change.
One example I like to illustrate for this point comes from Martin Luther King Jr. - the celebrated civil rights leader from the mid-20th century in America. In giving this example from someone who effectively negotiated for change - I will super abbreviate this historic, instructive and inspirational stretch of time. I am not able to do documentary type coverage here in a brief podcast, but all the same I will try to give a sense of the time in which this leadership example took place.
We are going back to 1963. One hundred years after Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, and yet American blacks continue to live under pervasive racial discrimination and segregation - with little promise of change. Alabama had become the visible presence of the worst of this oppression for the nation. In response to the flood-level of discontent and protest for change, Alabama Governor George Wallace saw fit to deliver his polarizing "segregation now, segregation today, and segregation forever" speech at his Inaugural Address on January 14, 1963.
The speech galvanized segregationists in Alabama - and across the south.
But his speech further aroused civil rights groups and blacks as to demand change. Dr. King himself went to 16 cities across Alabama in the first three months of 1963 to speak against segregation. Then Dr. King came to Birmingham - the city regarded at the time to be one of the most segregated cities in the south
Here - beginning on April 3, 1963 - in the city of steel- a nonviolent campaign against segregation and injustices was begun - under the leadership of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - which was led by Dr. King. Within days in response to the campaign, a judge issued an order against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing.”
In choosing to disobey this blanket order, Dr. King and others were arrested on April 12, 1963, and given an unkindly welcome to the Birmingham jail.
Then while Dr. King was in jail, eight Birmingham Clergymen unwittingly stepped into history by together publishing an open letter to Dr. King in the Birmingham News. This open letter in the newspaper was also meant to be a message from these religious leaders to the Birmingham black community calling them to among other things - not follow Dr. King in the Birmingham protests.
A black staff member in the jail brought Dr. King a copy of the Birmingham News - so he could read the letter.
ALABAMA CLERGYMEN'S LETTER TO DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. [THE FOLLOWING IS A VERBATIM COPY OF THE PUBLIC STATEMENT DIRECTED TO MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. BY EIGHT ALABAMA CLERGYMEN, WHICH OCCASIONED HIS REPLY.] April 12, 1963 We the undersigned clergymen are among those who in January, issued "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense," in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed. Since that time there had been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which caused racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems. However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment. Just as we formerly pointed out that "hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political tradition." We also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham. We commend the community as a whole and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence. We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense. Signed by: C. C. J. CARPENTER, D.D., LL.D. Bishop of Alabama JOSEPH A. DURICK, D.D. Auxiliary Bishop. Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham Rabbi HILTON J. GRAFMAN, Temple Emmanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama Bishop PAUL HARDIN, Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church. Bishop HOLAN B. HARMON, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church GEORGE M. MURRAY, Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama EDWARD V. RAMSAGE, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States EARL STALLINGS, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.
Now as a leader - if you had been Dr. King in jail - in that moment - reading that letter - what would you be feeling? And what would you do?
It looked like a time to back up - or give up.
But Dr. King saw in this bleak yet perfect moment the time to layout the what was to become the gospel for freedom: freedom from racial discrimination and segregation.
In 2005, W. Ralph Eubank wrote an article in the Washington Post entitled: “Before He Had His ‘Dream’, King wrote a Letter." And so it happended that from April 12-16, 1963 this foundational letter for freedom - Letter from Birmingham Jail - was written by Dr. King. In Dr. King’s 1964 book Why We Can't Wait he writes: "Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me."
Because of copyright limits, I cannot pass on the full contents of Letter from Birmingham Jail - but find a copy if you haven’t read it - and you can see firsthand why Dr. King’s Letter is - one of the most compelling, eloquent, and strategic responses to guide thinking on these civil rights negotiations for the nation.
What was especially important in the negotiation discussion related to urgency - and Dr. King lays out the critical basis for now being the time to act. Both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson agreed on his point of urgency.
Reading here from the Letter - listen how Dr. King as leader articulates the role of negotiation:
Quoting Dr. King from the Letter from Birmingham Jail:
“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.”
Negotiation has become part of the leadership legacy that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leaves us. Refer you to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change - TheKingCenter.org for a more information on negotiation in leadership.
In addition, as you study leadership watch for the discussion and treatment of negotiation as a skill, tool, and strategic resource.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From Birmingham Jail effectively shaped much of the foundation for national political negotiations that took place going forward from 1963, that allowed for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.