Yesterday, I suggested that King’s persuasiveness originated not in his eloquence alone—although his oratorical virtuosity remains nearly peerless—but in his moral conviction and credibility.
Today I want to discuss another element of King's persuasiveness: his ability to lead according to a timeline that respected not convenience but justice.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” was King’s response to an open letter from white religious leaders in Alabama who counseled him to be more patient in his struggle for civil rights. King penned the rejoinder from prison after his arrest on April 12, 1963, in the margins of the same paper that published the clergy’s plea for restraint.
King argues in the letter that the time for civil rights is now: “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.” African Americans, King points out, had been waiting for justice for 340 years. Those who believed civil rights should wait preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Leaders can learn from King the importance of discerning the right time for action—and then persuading others that action is necessary, even when it means disturbing the status quo. The right time for leadership rarely arrives on its own.
Conviction, credibility, doing the right thing at the right time: these are the core elements that underlie persuasion, and King possessed them in abundance. His speeches are timeless eloquence; but unless powered by authentic belief, eloquence alone does not bend the arc of history.