Dr. King and Creative Tension


Every year at this time, I re-read Dr. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Penned in 1963, this gently provocative letter, written in response to eight Alabama clergymen who disapproved of King’s nonviolent protests for civil rights, always provides me with a fresh look at our country.

This time I was struck by King’s call for “creative tension” to shake loose the status quo and force dialogue.

He explains its power, the ways in which creative tension forces a community or country to confront social ills long intentionally overlooked. “It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…. I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister…. There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth…the kind of tension that creates a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”


Often his Letter reminds me of our failings, but when it comes to generating creative tension, I see it at work here and now. Creative tension makes those in power quite uncomfortable. Tension shines a spotlight on hard problems and forces ears open. It gets results. Here are but a few current examples of the use of creative tension that occurred to me after re-reading Dr. King’s Letter.

Look at the young activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, taking the fight for gun control to the NRA and state and national legislators. Moved to act on behalf of murdered classmates, students like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez won’t allow the country to look away again. Confront gun violence. Talk about it. Act. Welcome the tension.

San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz refuses to let the establishment in Washington forget the plight of Puerto Ricans. She speaks up loud and clear about the abject failure of the US government to come to the aid of its citizens. What is the death toll from Hurricane Maria? Three thousand deaths and still counting. Who is responsible for the three million American citizens living in Puerto Rico? More tension please.

Female gymnasts faced their abuser, sent him to prison, and confronted the USA Olympic Committee and Michigan State University. Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and many more courageous gymnasts continue the fight against enablers, excusers, and overlookers of the nightmare of abuse. How many other victims have been and will be empowered by these outspoken athletes? Tension unleashed.

In “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” film director Barry Jenkins lights up the big screen with searing racial and LGBTQ issues. He brings James Baldwin’s novel front and center in giving Beale Street its voice. Jenkins wrote the screenplay for “Moonlight,” an all-black cast telling a story uniquely their own. These unforgettable films unsettle and educate. Tension at work.

Yes, look at the attention garnered by the LA Teachers Strike, some 30,000 teachers joined by parents and students, nonviolently protesting the crisis in public education. Smaller and successful teacher strikes stirred up their communities and the country in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. May we stay increasingly sensitive to the essential role of education in democracy. Ramp up the tension.

“We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” states the Gillette commercial and listen to the outcry! Tension, you bet—agree or disagree, people are talking about “toxic masculinity.” Good! Let’s have some dialogue about gender roles. Prior to Gillette’s commercial, creative tension spiked sky-high with Nike’s ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Why the yelling and burning of Nike apparel? Kaepernick took a knee on the sidelines during the National Anthem to protest police violence against unarmed black Americans. Isn’t this specific kind of injustice a reality, a fact of life for black men? Isn’t taking a knee a sign of respect? Might Kaepernick personify patriotism? Is he practicing King’s nonviolent resistance to force dialogue on injustice? Touchdown for tension.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hopping “Hamilton” has people singing and talking about history, justice, politics, the past and the future. By bringing “Hamilton” from Broadway to San Juan, Miranda shines light on conditions in Puerto Rico. Has the show sparked controversy? Absolutely! What’s Alexander Hamilton’s relevance to citizens lacking infrastructure , schools, health care? How does the audience respond when Miranda raps “Hurricane?” No matter what, the curtain is up and we’re revisiting Puerto Rico. Encore for tension.

The House of Representatives is full of creative tension, brought to the Capitol by forty new Democratic representatives with different looks, backgrounds, passionate constituents, and activist agendas. There’s dancing, humor, and palpable energy in hallways and on streets. Two Native American women: Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland. Two Muslim women: Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. And a waitress from the Bronx: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez creates tension whether speaking, posting on social media, or strolling to the Senate to seek out an elusive Majority Leader. The conversation has changed. Now, at the forefront, are no-longer-buried issues such as minimum wage, single payer healthcare system, a Green New Deal to create jobs in fighting climate change. Income inequality has been exposed from all angles, statistics and analysis debated, the word “socialist” bandied about. Change rides in on waves of tension between old and new.

So, what place does “creative tension” have in my life? Dr. King’s Letter from 1963 reminds me that any tension caused by my asking questions or confronting prejudice is both inevitable and necessary. Taking a stand for empathy and against cruelty is my responsibility. Creative tension is a good thing. I should invite questions, too, and listen well. I must watch myself, on guard against silence in the face of bigotry or apathy in reaction to the madness in Washington.

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily,” King writes in 1963 and rewrites in 2019.

Dr. King reminds me to stay woke.