Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Fierce Urgency of Now” — Updated for 2022
Issue 189— January 17, 2022
I honestly can’t believe that my column on January 18, 2021, recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday barely struck the alarm it deserved.
How could I not have drawn brightly the profound contrast between Dr. King’s exhortations to Civil Rights movement activists to hold nonviolent protests and last year’s January 6 violent breech of the Capitol?
I mentioned it, but I must not have comprehended immediately the magnitude of the threat to the fundamental values of equality and justice, that we ostensibly celebrate on MLK’s birthday, to our very democracy, and the principles at the heart of the work for gender parity.
My favorite MLK quote, which I refer to frequently in 9 Leadership Power Tools trainings, is: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
I feel sure that if he were writing those words today, he would include “woman.” Because as he himself often noted, justice must always expand to be inclusive of all.
Whether or not he would amend his statement, I contend that racism and sexism are joined at the head along with other attempts to marginalize groups of human beings based on gender, race, religion, ability, age, sexual orientation, or other factors.
As I wrote this column, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants were being held hostage inside a small synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, a congregation led by a rabbi known for his interfaith outreach and commitment to social justice. A congregation very like the one I belonged to in Odessa, Texas as a young woman when I first became involved in interfaith and civil rights work.
Next time, believe me, it could be you who is the target of such hatred simply because of who you are.
If there was ever a moment when we must not merely repeat Dr. King’s inspiring words but also think deeply about how we will apply them in as leaders, this is it.
Factoid for you (in case you are the next Amy Schneider on Jeopardy): after the recalcitrant Arizona state legislature repeatedly failed to codify MLK Day, the people rose up and in 1992, Arizona became the only state to adopt an MLK holiday by ballot initiative.
And therein lies the answer to Dr. King’s call. Citizen involvement in the democratic process.
MLK was a great orator to be sure and that enabled him to bring a wide range of people to his message to provide both inspiration and outrage that was well placed. But he was also a deeply knowledgeable historian and political strategist.
He was far from the only extraordinary leader within the Civil Rights Movement of his time, including many women who haven’t been given their due. What I learned from them all is that people working together within the democratic process can change anything.
But there has to be a fair process to work together within. And that requires participation in the electoral process, not only marching or orating in the public square. To quote Ezra Klein’s column in the New York Times 1/16/22, “Real political work …is the intentional, strategic accumulation of power in service of a defined end. It is action in service of change, not information in service of outrage.”
As a proud recipient of the City of Phoenix’s Dr. Martin Luther King Living the Dream award in 1996, I rue the juxtaposition of MLK celebrations with the current battles over voting rights which are being assaulted in state after state; meanwhile, a federal mandate to keep elections fair and accessible — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — fails to pass, held hostage in part by one of Arizona’s own senators.
And paradoxically those in our society with greatest racial privilege are most likely to rail against teaching young people about race within our nation’s history.
There is so much more work to be done!
During this time of great national duress and yet great hope for a better future not unlike what propelled the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, we need MLK’s inspiration as much as the assembled marchers on the Capital Mall in August of 1963 did. Watch the video of his “I Have a Dream” full speech here.
Dr. King’s admonition: “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”
In words far more eloquent than mine, Dr. King tells us to define power on our terms. To reject the oppressive power-over model; to use the power to, in order to do good. Making that mental transformation is the key to enabling women too to embrace the phenomenal power we have to lead ourselves, our organizations, and our public policies to a more just and inclusive world for everyone.
We hunger for such a leader today.
But consider: each of us can be that leader. Because we all have opportunities to take leadership actions whether at home, at work, or in the public sphere.
Dr. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now:”
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
What fierce urgency of now most compels you to speak up, take action, or take the lead? Drop it in the comments to honor Dr. King’s birthday but more importantly to help shape a more just future for all.
P.S. To get more of the history, you can listen to special programming on NPR Radio Catskill WJFF January 16 and 17. Hear King in his own words, stories from those who knew him, people who shared in his cause, as well as the music that inspired King and the music that he inspired.
(Huge thanks to Janus Adams for sharing this information.)
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of five books, most recently Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics, and How Women Will Take The Lead for (Everyone’s) Good. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.