Learning from the example of Martin Luther King Jr.

Written by Derek Monson

January 14, 2022

Fictional heroes are often venerated in popular media and entertainment for their superhuman accomplishments. Next week we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – an actual American hero. As we celebrate this holiday, we should remember that we can learn valuable lessons from both the achievements as well as the failures of our human heroes.

King’s track record as a civil rights leader is mainly one of success: the prayer pilgrimage for freedom, the Montgomery bus boycotts, the Birmingham campaign, the “I have a dream” speech, etc. Certainly, King should be remembered for how he successfully fought racism and ended racial segregation. But there were also efforts that did not succeed. One such example occurred in Albany, Georgia.

In late 1961 a number of civil rights groups formed the Albany Movement, which sought to end segregation in the city of Albany using peaceful protests like sit-ins and marches. After more than 500 people were arrested for participating in these protests, King came to Albany at the request of one of the local protest leaders.

After participating in a march in mid-December, King was arrested “on charges of parading without a permit and obstructing the sidewalk.” Because King’s arrest brought so much negative attention to Albany, city leaders made an agreement with local protest leaders: If King would leave Albany, then desegregation efforts would begin and jailed protesters would be released from prison on bail. After King left Albany, however, the city reneged on its agreement and refused to desegregate.

Why remember this setback at the time of Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Because it became essential to one of King’s most memorable successes, and there’s something we can learn from that.

According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University:

The experiences in Albany … helped inform the strategy for the Birmingham Campaign that followed less than a year later. King acknowledged that “what we learned from our mistakes in Albany helped our later campaigns in other cities to be more effective.”

The Birmingham Campaign was a series of sit-ins, marches, a boycott of businesses, and other nonviolent protest measures taken to end segregation in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Efforts to get the protests stopped led to a court injunction against them. King and other civil rights leaders refused to obey the injunction, which they saw as unjust and unconstitutional. When King participated in the protests himself, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. The protests ultimately proved successful at driving an agreement to begin ending segregation in Birmingham.

While King was in jail, criticism of the Birmingham protests by local clergymen led King to write a letter in response. This became known afterward as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The letter detailed the principles behind and proper steps of nonviolent protest against unjust laws, and is one of the most articulate and persuasive arguments for nonviolent protest ever written. It also put in poignant and personal terms the experience of Black Americans that motivated and morally justified their nonviolent protests.

In short, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” became an important primary document for students of American social and political history.

There are important lessons to learn from King’s experiences. While one can never know for certain how history would have played out if things had gone differently, it seems possible that this letter (and possibly the civil rights success of which it was a part) may never have happened without the setback on Albany. Another, perhaps counterintuitive, way of saying this is that failure often plays an essential role in success.

We approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2022 seemingly adrift in an ocean of political division and ideology-driven polarization. Those seeking to elevate principles above politics and find consensus via principled compromise on politically controversial issues should remember that they are very likely to fail – perhaps many times – before they find success.

In fact, King’s experience suggests that learning from setbacks and failures may offer the key to success in such an endeavor. After all, Gen. George Washington was defeated by the British military at Long Island and White Plains before he defeated them at Trenton and Princeton, and Abraham Lincoln lost to Stephen Douglas in a run for U.S. senator from Illinois before defeating him and later becoming president of the United States.

Our heroes often teach as much from their setbacks as they do from their successes. Their fortitude to move beyond their failures to achieve success is part of what makes them heroes. In a time where so many seem content to tear down anyone and anything around them for the sake of a political or ideological agenda, that’s an important lesson to remember for those of us seeking to build our community, state and nation.

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