When we look at Martin Luther King Jr History we acknowledge a man who had brilliant leadership characteristics for his mission. Learning about his life and mission will be enriching for any leader.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a complex man who had a multifaceted career as one of the leaders of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He was born on January 15th, 1929 and died on April 4th, 1968. He is remembered particularly for his amazing powers or oration and for cultivating non-violent civil disobedience.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King and was the son of Michael King Sr. (later Martin Luther King Sr. when both father and son’s names were changed to honour the sixteenth century German Reformer of the same name) and Alberta Williams King. King’s father was a College graduate and a reverend, as was his grandfather A.D Williams, so he was exposed early in his life to oratory and classics within his education.
King had a quick intelligent mind. In 1948 he graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia with a BA. IN 1951 he gained a B.Div and in 1955 he added a PhD to his academic qualifications. Whilst studying he became inspired by the life and teaching of Mahatma Gandhi, particularly in Gandhi’s support for using non-violent strategies for social change. These were teachings that King held very close to his heart all his life.
In 1955 King was involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A 15 year old girl named Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man which was against the law in the Southern States of the USA. King was on a committee that looked into the case. However, as Claudette was pregnant and unmarried, he took on the later case of Rosa Parks who was arrested in December for also refusing to give up her seat. This led to a Bus Boycott that lasted for 385 days. The Boycott effectively ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses and King received enough media coverage that he became a national figure.
In 1963 King was one of six civil rights leaders that led a March on Washington to highlight inequities within society. It was at the ensuing rally that King delivered his historical ‘I have a dream’ speech. Later that year, he was voted Time magazine’s Man of the Year and the following year he won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through non-violence. He donated all his winnings to the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr History: Anger
King harnessed the anger within him to utilize as energy, drive and ambition to change what needed to be changed. In his books he recalled how he felt anger on several occasions. He recalled how as a teenager he had been travelling with a teacher on a bus and having paid for a ticket was required to stand up and give his seat to some white men who boarded his bus. He had to stand for the duration of the 90 minute journey. That anger would spur him to success during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, over a decade later.
In 1956 his home was bombed by white supremacists while his wife and child were asleep. He recalled the anger that he felt at that moment and he vowed to channel it to a higher purpose.
Martin Luther King Jr History: Led by Example
King was driven by his personal values. Because he was inspirational to others, and some would call him charismatic, he was able to inspire others and to encourage them to take risks, just as he did. King was arrested 29 times during his life including during the Birmingham Campaign in Alabama. In April 1963 he led civil disobedience in Birmingham against racial segregation. He encouraged the black community to occupy public spaces normally barred to them; to hold sit-ins; and to violate any laws they considered unjust. Initially the campaign did not seem to make much of a ripple within wider society, so King encouraged women and children to join the peaceful demonstration which ensured more publicity and media coverage. The public authorities reacted with aggression, using water cannon on children for example, causing a public outcry. The campaign was a success.
Martin Luther King Jr History: Compassion
Along with his views on non-violence, King was a caring and compassionate man. Several times he came up against aggression and his attitude was always the same. He would refuse to press charges and instead insist that it was the system that needed to be changed and not the individuals within it.
Martin Luther King Jr History: Challenged the System
From a very early age King challenged society and prevailing views about colour. He challenged attitudes to racism and racist activities. He completely refused to settle for second best and he never negotiated or compromised, no matter how hard he found campaigning at times. His only desire was for full civil rights for all.
Martin Luther King Jr History: Top Down Leadership
His top down and hierarchical leadership style tended to put him at odds with other civil right groups who would have preferred a more open and democratic style of leadership. However, King never underestimated or patronized his followers. In spite of his great intellect, he managed to appeal to even the most uneducated of his followers.
He was also a great diplomat. He would listen carefully while others argued and feuded all around him and then he would summarize and suggest new ways forwards.
Martin Luther King Jr History: Oration
The powers of Martin Luther King Jr. are most evident in the speeches that he gave. His ‘I have a Dream’ speech for example was delivered to a crowd of approximately 250,000 demonstrators on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. The ‘I have a dream’ speech is particularly memorable in its imagery, and simplicity of language. King delivered the speech clearly and with great passion. It was a speech that was at once persuasive and inspiring but also allowed for reflection. The repetition and the pauses allowed listeners to envisage and experience King’s vision in a very immediate way. It remains a powerful and emotive speech.
King’s peaceful and non-violent strategies, in pursuit of civil rights for all, seemed to continually provoke the authorities. In his lifetime, King endured multiple arrests for minor offences, was harassed by the FBI and vilified for his lack of aggression by other black leaders. But King was adamant that peaceful means were the right means in order to progress the civil rights cause. He wrote that ‘we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds’ and insisted that we should meet ‘physical force’ with ‘soul force’.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. James Earl Ray was arrested and detained for life for the murder of King, without ever receiving a trial.
When we look at Martin Luther King Jr History we can see that he was a remarkable man and one of the forerunners in the civil rights movement. His leadership qualities were focused towards his mission and this is a great lesson to learn for us all.
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