Negotiation Case Studies , Negotiation Research January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Negotiation

Today is the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday here in the United States, celebrating the many contributions of this renowned hero of the civil rights movement...


Today is the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday here in the United States, celebrating the many contributions of this renowned hero of the civil rights movement.

Rev. King was known for his nonviolent approach, and his advocacy of peaceful civil disobedience. Yet, part of his approach, as he describes in his famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, has to do with negotiation. (Read the whole letter here: http://www.lagcc.cuny.edu/ctl/mlk/letter.htm )

King writes the following:

“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. ... On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants--for example, to remove the stores' humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

King believes the right place is to start with good-faith negotiations. However, if the other party breaks the spirit or letter of the negotiation outcome, action must be taken. Then, perhaps an environment is open again for negotiation:

“The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”


From this letter, we can summarize King’s views on negotiation as:

• Negotiations must be two-sided, with both sides having equal power
• Negotiations must be in good-faith
• Both parties must agree to abide by the results of negotiations.
• If negotiations break down, action may be taken, with the purpose of getting back to the negotiation table.
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