In April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a Birmingham, Ala., jail cell with enough time on his hands to “write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers.” The resulting “Letter from Birmingham Jail” laid out his rationale for civil disobedience against Southern segregation and called on moderate whites to stop sitting on the sidelines.

Nearly five decades later, 900 Harvard Business School (HBS) students are hearing King’s call again, reflecting on his words and on the qualities that made him continue to lead and to push ahead when the future was far from clear, as he sat in jail.

“It’s about exercising leadership in the face of grave tension, resistance, and potential failure, seeing things that others don’t see, and trying to mobilize them,” said Joshua Margolis, associate professor of business administration. “It’s a nice coupling between the mission of the School, which is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, and a leader who at the age of 34 made an immense difference.”

On Monday (May 10), a present-day leader visited Margolis’ class and talked about how the Civil Rights Movement and King’s words affected her. Harvard President Drew Faust told students that they don’t have to enter service-related fields to foster change. If they desire it, opportunities to act will become apparent.

“Keep in mind this intense desire to make a difference, and you’re going to find a lot of opportunities to do it,” Faust said.

Faust’s hour-long talk capped a year of students’ studying leadership and ethics in HBS’s mandatory “Leadership and Corporate Accountability” course. In one of the course’s final assignments, students read Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he responded to a letter from a group of white local pastors who acknowledged the injustice of segregation but counseled that the remedy be found in the courts, not on the streets.

King, in a now-famous reply, claimed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and laid out his rationale for nonviolent protest, saying that long years of waiting for remedy had yielded nothing for the area’s black community and that unjust laws must not be obeyed. He also expressed deep disappointment with the local churches and with white moderates, saying their caution and silence were more pernicious than the outright opposition of the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist groups.

Faust’s talk came on the heels of a lively class discussion of the material in one of the course’s 10 sections. The discussion, led by Margolis, had students analyzing King’s motivations, his goals, and the effects of writing the letter, as well as their own thoughts on ethics and leadership that they might apply to their own lives and careers.

Harvard’s first woman president told the students that as a girl growing up in the segregated South, the Civil Rights Movement had a big impact on her. She recalled first becoming aware that her Virginia elementary school was segregated at age 9 when the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education came down, outlawing segregated schools.

She recalled writing a letter to President Dwight Eisenhower protesting the separate treatment of people based on race. Years later, as a student at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Faust left her studies to join protesters across the South during the spring and summer of 1964.

For Faust, as for so many other young people of the time, the Civil Rights Movement was the dominating experience of her life, she said. The experience was even more keenly felt among those who grew up in the South’s segregated communities, and that ultimately led to her decision to become a historian of the American South.

“I spent my whole life following Martin Luther King, feeling somehow accountable for the issues he raised,” Faust said. “The resonance of the movement for us was even more powerful than for those who lived elsewhere. It also offered us a very clear way in which we could make a difference.”

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” put the same questions to HBS’s first-year students that the Civil Rights Movement put to Faust: What will you do to fight injustice? How will you make the world a better place?

First-year student Brett Gibson said it was helpful to get the perspective of someone like Faust who lived through the era. Gibson, who served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and who is considering entering politics, said he is thinking about how best to use his time in a meaningful way as he weighs summer internship opportunities, including a post in the financial sector.

Stephanie Atiase, another first-year student, said she is interested in getting involved in leadership development after she leaves Harvard, perhaps through a business that engages in social enterprise, making a product whose proceeds go to a good cause.

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