On this day, April 4th, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Today, I want to pay homage to his loss by sharing a couple of thoughts that I have about his last days which are quite fascinating, but which both inspire and humble me at the same time…
- He was considered a radical at his time
- He was willing (and even resigned) to dying for what his cause was
- He was 39 when he died
I want to focus on this first fact the most because it’s where I think the difference lies between those that achieve greatness and those that achieve ok-ness. There are numerous cases of people who are considered or labeled radical at the time, but who are vindicated as the years pass on. What is radical yesterday, becomes common sense, moral, normal and / or “right” today. This, to me, is inspiring. There’s nothing worse to try to change things and shake up the status quo and hear someone else say, “that’s impossible,” or “that’s unrealistic,” or “that’s just the way it is” when you recognize that, in fact, there are reasons that it’s “the way it is,” and that while it might be difficult to change, it’s certainly not “impossible.” It takes someone very strong to reject those defeatist attitudes and push on, even in the face of failure in the short term, but with belief in the long term. And, this isn’t just true for activists like MLK either. When I went to see the Tim Burton exhibit a year or two ago at MOMA, I was struck by a timeline of his recognized work and accomplishments because I recognized that for about a 15-20 year period, it was blank. He was getting no love for that entire time, was considered too out there and radical, but didn’t waver in his belief that his work was brilliant. Now, of course, he’s considered a genius.
On a more personal level, I’m sure anyone who has ever worked at a company or organization has also been faced with that moment of truth where you can speak up in opposition of everyone around the table, or you can shut up and go along with something you don’t believe. I faced that very decision point in many situations and have failed more times than I’d like to admit. But I think there is a reason for that – rejecting the consensus is a high risk, high reward choice, with the balance skewing closer to the high risk. To achieve the reward not only requires being right when everyone else is going left, but it also requires being able to convince others that you were right all along. The risk is that, people reject your current and future beliefs, that you are now considered an outsider, and that ultimately, even when proven right, you aren’t able to stick around long enough (for instance, being forced out of the organization) to receive the credit, and certainly aren’t rewarded as history is rewritten by those that remain behind.
So what’s different in the case of MLK? Why is he now vindicated for his past “radicalism” and why does he now receive credit (actually, probably more credit than even he deserves ironically, but that’s another story…)? I actually think it’s because he was so outspoken in his beliefs and convictions and goals (which go far beyond just racial harmony, but that’s another story as well…), while actually committing to putting them in motion, that it was literally impossible for history to be rewritten. It was because he leaped over the timidity of being afraid of being the radical and embraced it so that he wasn’t only sharing his beliefs behind the scenes, but in public so that everyone would know what he stood for and why. That’s humbling to me.
Further humble pie is served by the fact that one of the main reasons he was able to be so outspoken was because he believed in his cause and himself so strongly. No one is going to challenge the consensus if they don’t have a strong sense of self. Nor is anyone going to go out on a limb for something they don’t care about deeply, given the risks involved as described above. But when you are willing to die for your cause, the timidity of being seen as a radical almost assuredly pales in comparison. It is because of being radical (and RIGHT…that’s an important point to make) that MLK was targeted for death. So, if like MLK, you are willing to accept the latter consequences, (and it doesn’t have to go to the extreme of death – it could be being fired, making less money, losing friends, etc.), does the source of the consequences really matter as much?
Lastly, I am always in awe of the fact that MLK was 39 when his life was ended. Thirty-nine years old. How inspiring is that? The fact alone makes it clear that there is no age limit to having the impact that you want to have. I feel like many of us, myself included, fall back on the idea that it takes a long time to develop the experience and means to be able to take whatever risks that we actually want. But, in reality, MLK was so young, and he wasn’t ready when he was thrust into the role of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. But he thrived. Maybe that’s a once in a lifetime achievement, but I tend to think it’s not. And as such, I am humbled by the fact that it’s time to pick up the pace because I have a lot of catching up to do.