MLK, Leadership, and Nonviolence (part one)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  (MLK)

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) was one of the most extraordinary communicators of modern time. More than 40 years after his death, liberals and conservatives both repeat his quotes. MLK was not a solitary leader of the civil rights movement; he was the spokesperson for the movement. His words would have been hollow had he not also been willing to embody the practices of nonviolent civil disobedience. He was willing to suffer imprisonment and even death for the cause – but he was not willing to use violence.

In March 2007, after studying MLK’s writings on nonviolence (in conjunction with a two year relationship with Pace e Bene Nonviolence Services (, I was a participant in the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq. Over 3,000 people gathered in the National Cathedral to engage in a multi-faith, multi-denominational worship service for peace and an end to the Iraq war. After a powerful service with a number of nationally recognized “preachers” we walked 3.5 miles (in the middle of a blustery cold winter snow storm) singing peace songs, drumming, and holding battery powered candles.

Like the nonviolent demonstrations of MLK, this event was carefully planned beginning months in advance. The vast majority of the participants and all of the leaders had received preliminary training in the practices and principles of nonviolence. Training included role-playing violent confrontations and spiritual practices designed to help prepare us to face violence without responding with violence.

While we walked from the National Cathedral to the White House, there were trained ‘peace-keepers’ walking along both sides of the larger group. They were leaders with considerable training who were able to defend the ‘nonviolent’ nature of the mass of people. Rabble-rousers were not allowed into the marching group. People who shouted angry words, or who were not able to maintain their composure were asked to leave. It takes a great deal of discipline to maintain the spirit of nonviolence. Nonviolent movements need to be leader-full movements.

About three hundred of us walked around the White House one time singing peace songs and praying. A prayer vigil with thousands was held the park directly across the street. Then the civil disobedience commenced. The first group of 100 people formed a circle right in front of the White House. As long as we were peacefully moving we were within the law, but as soon as we stopped on the sidewalk we were breaking a law. After several verbal warnings and at least an hour of time waiting in the freezing cold, the National Park Police handcuffed the first 100 people and hauled them into buses to be driven to the Park police station.

I was part of the second round of people arrested. After the first arrests, the police put up a yellow crime scene warning tape across the sidewalk and told us we were not allowed to cross the line. I was one of the first to cross the police line holding the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq banner. We didn’t have to wait as long to be arrested. However we did form a similar circle holding hands and singing. The woman standing next to me and holding my hand was over 80 years old.

There were so many (over 300) people arrested that night that they were not able to put us all in jail cells. We spent the night in our buses, waiting for our turn to be taken into the police stations to be finger printed, booked, and given our citations.

This occurred during the Lenten season. When I returned to Berkeley, I returned to my role as an organizer of the annual Good Friday nonviolent civil disobedience worship service (using the Christian/Catholic stations of the cross as our context). I was arrested that Good Friday (again for quietly praying) at the gate to the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear laboratory.

MLK also went to jail in Birmingham on Good Friday.

One of the lessons I have learned in my journey as a nonviolent practitioner is the pain of the “appalling silence of good people (See MLK quote at the end of this post).” The notion that we should be well behaved, and not upset those who tell us to “be patient” is one way that “good people” betray the cause of justice for the oppressed.

When I returned to seminary after my arrests, my fellow “progressive liberal” seminary students had mixed reactions and many of them could not understand my willingness to risk my future as a clergy person for something like this. “Aren’t you afraid what your Board of Ordained Ministry will say?”

Recently, I have been attempting to reconcile an old connection with a United Methodist Church. There are so many kind and compassionate people that I love who belong. However, there are leaders in the congregation who would silence my prophetic advocacy for LGBTQ folk with admonitions to be patient, and to respect the conservative point of view. For a congregation that wants to be known as the church where “all means all”… do they really only mean you are welcome if you accept their status quo?

It happens to leaders all of the time, particularly transformative leaders. You cannot be a transformative leader and protect the status quo. You cannot be a transformative leader if you are overly concerned that you might offend good patient people.

This is the lesson that we should learn from MLK’s letter from the Birmingham Jail. (Excerpts from letter)


“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.”

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Quotes from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail.