Martin Luther King Jr.
To understand Martin Luther King, Jr., a brief overview of history is helpful. In 1777, the Vermont legislature became the first to abolish slavery. “By 1820 slavery was no longer a national establishment. It was a southern enterprise. Of the 1.5 million slaves in the United States, 99 percent resided in southern states and territories” (Phillips, 2000, p. 6).
When Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1860, the South revolted, and seven states seceded from the United States before he could even be sworn into office. Those seven states formed the Confederate States of America. Within six months, eleven states had left the Union. “When Confederate troops fired on the Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina— a four-year war, the bloodiest in American history, began” (Phillips, 2000, p. 11). Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and declared that more than three million slaves in the rebellious southern states were free.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in 1929, just before the Great Depression. He was brilliant and graduated high school at the early age of fifteen. King later earned his doctor of philosophy from Boston University’s School of Theology. He became “the most important civil rights leader in the twentieth century” (King, 1996, p. ix). He was high energy and an action-oriented man with something to say about the state of affairs regarding American racial equality.
“The America he addressed was different from the America of today. It was a nation whose racial wrongs were sanctioned by unjust laws” (King, 1996, p. ix). His task was one that would require a great deal of discipline, patience, and courage. He established himself as a leader in a movement that would change the tone of racial equality in the United States of America. King believed that “if America is to remain a first-class nation, it cannot have second-class citizens” (King, 1996, p. 67).
“Dr. King once said that when a crisis is placed right out in the open, leaders will naturally emerge out of the situation” (Phillips, 2000, p. 334). King was a man who cared deeply about people. Perhaps this was because he had a pastor’s heart. He also encouraged his people to care for each other. “Dr. King was able to provide people with a sense of hope. Even when things look their bleakest, he would express optimism: ‘Somehow, I still believe we’re going to get there,’ he’d say” (Phillips, 2000, p. 338).
The Leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.
Great leaders are judged by their ability to make leaders. It is simply not enough to evaluate a leader’s effectiveness by the number of followers they can accumulate. Leaders make leaders. “A leader must know who he is, and who he is dealing with; and then he must lead” (Brookhiser, 2009, p. 238).
James Burns has been identified by many as one of the key writers on leadership. Burns wrote that “transforming leadership, while more complex, is more potent” (Burns, 2012, p. 4). In this statement, Burns is differentiating transformational leadership from other types of leadership.
Northouse picks up this thought and says further that “transformational leadership places a strong emphasis on followers’ needs, values, and morals” (Northouse, 2016, p. 177).
Heifetz emphasizes that leadership should be more normalized than glamorized. One of his main points is to normalize leadership activity rather than elevate it to an exclusive position of authority. “Leadership takes place every day. It is neither the traits of the few, a rare event, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” (Heifetz, 1994, Kindle Location 4320).
King had this life-long approach and expression of leadership. He did not merely hold a position of power and authority or mystically become a great leader. King learned, adapted, and grew through various seasons of life. Heifetz further points out that “every time we face a conflict among competing values, or encounter a gap between our shared values and the way we live, we face the need to learn new ways” (Heifetz, 1994, Kindle Location 4320). King had this type of need for learning.
Dr. King had many strengths, but his greatest strength was his ability to speak to people with passion and clarity. “Modern scholars have acknowledged Martin Luther King, Jr., to be one of the great orators in American history— and have ranked his ‘I have a dream’ speech with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address” (Phillips, 2000, p. 88).
King delivered one of his most remembered speeches in 1963 at the centennial signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. “Although many of the phrases and themes that appear in ‘I Have a Dream’ had often been repeated by Dr. King, this is his most famous and most often quoted speech. He delivered it before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963” (King, 1996, p. 101). King is quoted as saying, “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free … so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition … in a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check … instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check” (King, 1996, p. 102).
More than just a great speaker, King was dedicated to being an activist as well. He was known as a patriot who regularly risked his life to fight for racial equality in America. Another of his strengths was his implementation of nonviolent assault. “King believed that only through a massive nonviolent assault would conditions change for black Americans” (King, 1996, p. xi). He taught that nonviolent campaigns consisted of four steps. First is the collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive. The second is negotiation. The third is self-purification. Fourth is direct action.
King believed that people needed to learn to respect each other and live together in equality. “This means that no individual or nation can live alone. We must all learn to live together, or we will be forced to die together” (King, 1996, p. 19). King was also a great advocate of servant leadership. He taught and spoke regularly on the different types of love and emphasized agape love. However, he also believed that “nonviolent resistance does call for love … a very stern love that would organize itself into collective action to right a wrong by taking on itself suffering” (King, 1996, p. 44). King desired to be a servant leader. His heartbeat for this is captured by his words in two different speech excerpts.
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s your new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it … by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant” (King, 1996, pp. 189-190).
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that’s not important. Tell him not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity” (King, 1996, p. 191).
One of the challenges of King’s approach was the slow nature of how change would be realized. King acknowledged this himself. “I do not want to give the impression that nonviolence will work miracles overnight. Men are not easily moved from their mental ruts or purged of their prejudiced and irrational feelings. When the underprivileged demand freedom, the privileged first react with bitterness and resistance” (King, 1996, p. 60). Another challenge in King’s work was the uphill battle of fighting his time’s injustices without breaking the law. Many times, the law was against King and his movement. He responded to this with a landmark philosophical statement.
“I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all. A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality” (King, 1996, p. 89).
King also struggled with the apathy of many of the people that he was trying to help. On occasion, he would be as critical of his people as he was of the people who opposed him. He wanted his people to rise up and realize their power and potential. “Power is not the white man’s birthright” (King, 1996, p. 165). The following excerpt exposes the frustration King felt toward his people’s apathy and their violent reactionary response to racial slurs from white people.
“It is always amusing to me when a Negro man says that he can’t demonstrate with us because if someone hit him he would fight back. Here is a man whose children are being plagued by rats and roaches, whose wife is robbed daily at overpriced ghetto food stores, who himself is working for about two-thirds the pay of a white person doing a similar job and with similar skills, and in spite of all this daily suffering it takes someone spitting on him or calling him a nigger to make him want to fight” (King, 1996, p. 129).
Of course, King would be firmly against fighting in response to verbal slander. But his point here is more focused on the apathy that had developed regarding the day-by-day conditions of life for his people. King wanted to “strategically and intentionally set out to persuade others to take up the ‘weapon’ of nonviolent direct action” (Phillips, 2000, p. 62).
King was a transformational leader who embodied servant leadership.