On Not Being a Consensus-Leader

On January 14, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King took time out of his busy speaking schedule to travel to the Santa Rita prison to meet with and offer his support to anti-war activist and singer Joan Baez, her mother Joan Bridges Baez, her sister Mimi Farina, and others imprisoned for blocking the Oakland draft induction center. In an impromptu press conference outside the jail, King reflected on civil disobedience and the nature and cost of prophetic leadership.

“Henry David Thoreau said in his essay on civil disobedience that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. I do not plan to cooperate with evil at any point. …

“I’m not a consensus-leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but he is a molder of consensus.

“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position  that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”–Dr. Martin Luther King (January 14, 1968, in front of the jail in Santa Rita, California)

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