There are times when we may be tempted to question ourselves regarding our principles or methods for promoting them. There are others, even friends, who might add to our self-doubts with their own. Fortunately, we can learn from historical examples of those who successfully stood firm to their principles even in the midst of tremendous doubt.
It was spring 1963 and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat imprisoned in a Birmingham city jail for participation in a direct-action demonstration for which he was charged with parading without a permit. However, what troubled King most was the criticism he received from eight Alabama clergymen who wrote an open letter titled “A Call for Unity.” This letter indirectly referenced King as a trouble making “outsider.” Additionally, the letter implied segregation was best dealt with patiently through the courts. So it’s between these two forces – a hostile city government and timid “friendly forces” that King demonstrated his courageous leadership. At all levels of leadership there are lessons to be absorbed by learning from the past. The situations will vary but certain principles remain constant. King’s letter brilliantly defined his vision for success to his doubters and perhaps most importantly for himself.
King envisioned four steps that are keys to any nonviolent struggle: facts, negotiation, self-purification and direct action. I’d argue they also apply to modern day leadership. First, the need to begin with factual information is readily apparent to most. Secondly, there’s the art of negotiation, or stated another way building relationships by taking Abraham Lincoln’s advice to ” … appeal to the better angels of our nature.” Next, King suggested a period of self-purification was needed in order to withstand any remaining hostilities. Last but not least, there’s “direct action” which implies that at some point we must act on the “fierce urgency of now.”
In his letter, King was angered by the clergy’s insistence on continued negotiations and he urged them join him instead toward more direct action. His major argument was that for far too long negotiation has come to mean “wait” and “wait” has almost always meant “never.” So I ask the question to you when standing firm on your principles, do you spend too much time in the negotiation stage? Sometimes the time to act is now. This may require speaking an uncomfortable truth to power but I’d encourage you to consider the words of poet James Russell Lowell, “Truth — forever on the scaffold, Wrong — forever on the throne, but the scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown.” Basically, there is never a bad time to let truths defeat wrongs.
As we remember, learn and appreciate those well or little known contributions to American history by Black Americans, let us apply those lessons to today as we commemorate a diversity that has made our Air Force great. We should continue to seek historical and current inspirations to prepare us for our moments of courageous leadership.
Photo: Maj. Dan Akeredolu (U.S. Air Force photo)