Respecting the Opposition – A Lesson from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This week, we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the most visible leader of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  Growing up in Atlanta during that same period gave me a front-row seat on the non-violent protest strategy used by Dr. King.  I must confess to not always understanding, much less fully appreciating what and how Dr. King carried out his campaign against racial segregation and economic injustice.

I have a memory of watching the news about his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C.   And who alive that year can forget how Dr. King organized the non-violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama and how Birmingham Police Chief “Bull” Connor used high-pressure water jets and police dogs to control protestors?  It was a turning point in the fight for civil rights in America.

Having lived through that period of Southern history, it came as a surprise to learn of a little-known story about Dr. King and his 1962 non-violent protests in Albany, Georgia.  Unlike, Birmingham’s “Bull” Connor, the Albany Police Chief was a well respected and likable man named Laurie Pritchett. Chief Pritchett instructed his officers not to use violence or excessive force during protests.  Once, when King had been arrested, it was Chief Pritchett, who discreetly arranged for King’s fine to be paid by none other than Billy Graham.  King and Pritchett developed a respect for each other.

In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell shares a little-known story of Dr. King.  It is a story I had never heard before and sheds light on the kind of leader King was.  During the period of the Albany protests, Chief Pritchett had moved into a downtown motel so that he could be nearby in the event of any violence.  Gladwell relates the following story.

“In the midst of a long negotiating session with King, Pritchett was handed a telegram by his secretary.  As Pritchett recalled, years later:

“I…must have shown some concern over [it] because Dr. King asked me if it was bad news.  I said, “No, it’s not bad news, Dr. King.  It just so happens this is my twelfth weddin’ anniversary and my wife sent me a telegram.” And he says – I never will forget this and this shows the understandin’ which we had – he said, “You mean this is your anniversary?”  And I said, “That’s right,” and I said, “I haven’t been home in at least three weeks.”  And he said, “Well, Chief Pritchett, you go home tonight, no, right now.  You celebrate your anniversary.  I give you my word that nothing will happen in Albany, Georgia, till tomorrow, and you can go, take your wife out to dinner, do anything you want to, and tomorrow at ten o’clock, we’ll resume our efforts.”  (1)

Moments like these reveal a man’s character.  While his efforts in Albany ultimately failed, Dr. King did not abandon his principles to accomplish his noble and righteous goals.  What he learned in Albany helped prepare him for what they would later face in Birmingham.  

Today our country is racked with protests that lack any semblance of tolerance or respect.  

There are a number of reasons to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  I can think of no better reason than to remind ourselves that we still need men and women like him today.

 

(1) David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, published by Little, Brown and Company, 2013, pages 178-180.

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