In his account of what made the movement for racial equality successful in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., emphasizes the importance of unity. Because Black southerners living in Birmingham faced so many obstacles in their push for freedom, it was crucial that they present a united front. In other words, Dr. King believes that the Black community couldn’t afford to have any internal division, since they already faced so many divisive challenges in society as a whole. The success of the movement therefore depended upon the organizers’ ability to bring together a “cross section of the community.” Then, once they managed to build a broad coalition of community members, Dr. King and other leaders trained participants in the art of nonviolent direct action—a method of protest or demonstration that relies on peaceful tactics. Without the use of violence or physical force, Dr. King and his associates had to devise strategic ways of getting through to the powerful white segregationists who controlled Birmingham. For example, they decided to boycott white-owned businesses that financially depended on Black shoppers. To do so, leadership had to forge strong connections throughout the Black community so that nobody frequented the businesses. By detailing the calculated decisions that he and other prominent figures made in 1963, Dr. King illustrates that it’s possible to lead successful revolutions without the use of violence—especially if leaders mobilize their community as a unified and cohesive force.
For Dr. King, who adamantly believes in the power of love and fellowship, it would be futile to fight racism without first practicing unity and kindness within the Black community. It makes sense that Dr. King wouldn’t want to challenge the divisive system of segregation with a similarly divided group. By uniting the Black community, then, Dr. King practiced what he preached. But doing so wasn’t particularly easy. Although everyone in the Black community was opposed to racism and segregation, not everyone agreed on the best way to address such matters. According to Dr. King, “unity has never meant uniformity,” meaning that people can—and often do—have differing opinions about how to reach a common goal. Despite the difficulty of organizing a large community to support the same “tactical” approach, Dr. King made a concerted effort to speak to the influential Black leaders of Birmingham, knowing that successful revolutionary forces must be united. In these conversations, he addressed concerns about the timing of the movement, since many influential Black people felt that the demonstrations were taking place at an inopportune time. Others were upset because they felt that Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were outsiders who hadn’t included them in the planning of the campaign. In addition to answering these concerns, Dr. King convinced skeptics to join the movement by emphasizing that, above all, injustice affected everyone in the Black community, so they might as well come together to challenge it. After all, the “bell of man’s inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man,” but for everyone.
Achieving unity within the civil rights movement also enabled Dr. King and his fellow leaders to draw upon a vast number of participants who were willing to put themselves on the line for freedom. The sheer size of the movement was critical to its success, especially since it relied on nonviolent direct action. In order to work, this tactic needed many demonstrators who were committed not only to nonviolence but also to practicing civil disobedience and going to jail. Dr. King stresses how effective it was for hordes of demonstrators to baffle police officers by peacefully making themselves vulnerable to violence and arrest. If only a small handful of activists had been willing to put themselves at risk, it would have been more difficult for the movement to make an impact. More than just practicing what he preached, then, Dr. King’s efforts to unify the civil rights movement were strategically necessary, proving that it’s possible to make a serious impact on society simply by coming together and committing to nonviolent direct action.
At the same time, even the most unified, non-hierarchal movements often need decisive individual leaders. As a community organizer devoted to creating a united movement, Dr. King faced the burden of responsibility that came with his leadership role. He and his fellow organizer Ralph Abernathy planned to be the first ones to go to jail after the court ordered the movement to stop all demonstrations. But the night before going through with their plan, they learned that the movement might not have enough money to bail them out, meaning that they could languish in jail for a very long time. Dr. King thus faced a tricky dilemma: if he went to jail, his absence might deflate the movement, but if he didn’t go to jail, it would seem like he was unwilling to do the very thing he’d encouraged everyone else to do. As Dr. King sat with his closest associates and thought about what he should do, he felt “alone” and unsure. He notes that “there comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself,” suggesting that sometimes it’s necessary for individual leaders to make difficult decisions all on their own. Dr. King was well aware that everyone was looking to him to make a decision, so he declared that he would go to jail. More than anything, this decision was a grand show of solidarity with the people he had encouraged to put themselves on the line, ultimately suggesting that effective leaders should stand with their fellow community members at all costs.
Unity, Community Organizing, and Leadership ThemeTracker
Unity, Community Organizing, and Leadership Quotes in Why We Can’t Wait
Nonviolent direct action did not originate in America, but it found its natural home in this land, where refusal to cooperate with injustice was an ancient and honorable tradition and where Christian forgiveness was written into the minds and hearts of good men.
When, for decades, you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: “Punish me. I do not deserve it. But because I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong," you hardly know what to do. You feel defeated and secretly ashamed. You know that this man is as good a man as you are; that from some mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force.
Perhaps even more vital in the Negro's resistance to violence was the force of his deeply rooted spiritual beliefs. In Montgomery after a courageous woman, Rosa Parks, had refused to move to the back of the bus, and so began the revolt that led to the boycott of 1955-56, the Negro's developing campaign against that city's racial injustice was based in the churches of the community. Throughout the South, for some years prior to Montgomery, the Negro church had emerged with increasing impact in the civil-rights struggle. Negro ministers, with a growing awareness that the true witness of a Christian life is the projection of a social gospel, had accepted leadership in the fight for racial justice […].
The eye-for-an-eye philosophy, the impulse to defend oneself when attacked, has always been held as the highest measure of American manhood. We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or that to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.
In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the songs the slaves sang—the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. […] We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that “We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday.”
The amazing aftermath of Birmingham, the sweeping Negro Revolution, revealed to people all over the land that there are no outsiders in all these fifty states of America. When a police dog buried his fangs in the ankle of a small child in Birmingham, he buried his fangs in the ankle of every American. The bell of man's inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man. It tolls for you, for me, for all of us.
I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt, with two dozen others in the room. There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself. I was alone in that crowded room.
You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well-timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
For the first time millions listened to the informed and thoughtful words of Negro spokesmen, from all walks of life. The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comment, which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants.
We can, of course, try to temporize, negotiate small, inadequate changes and prolong the timetable of freedom in the hope that the narcotics of delay will dull the pain of progress. We can try, but we shall certainly fail. The shape of the world will not permit us the luxury of gradualism and procrastination. Not only is it immoral, it will not work. It will not work because Negroes know they have the right to be free. It will not work because Negroes have discovered, in nonviolent direct action, an irresistible force to propel what has been for so long an immovable object. It will not work because it retards the progress not only of the Negro, but of the nation as a whole.