- January 25, 2023
As a student of leadership for the past three decades, I have searched high and low for good examples. Because much of my work was international, and much of the world believes that all Americans know about is America, I wanted to find leadership examples from as many different nationalities as possible. Yet, there was
As a student of leadership for the past three decades, I have searched high and low for good examples. Because much of my work was international, and much of the world believes that all Americans know about is America, I wanted to find leadership examples from as many different nationalities as possible. Yet, there was one American that I found resonated with people from six continents — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
His life story is well known, which does not need to be repeated here. What I appreciate is that as much as any leader who ever lived, Martin Luther King Jr. walked the talk. Two of his greatest literary works were in the midst of that challenging walk. The first was “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was an open letter he wrote on April 16, 1963. He was arrested because of coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. King’s action of protest was challenged by eight white Alabama clergymen in a newspaper editorial named, “A Call for Unity.” King’s supporters had to smuggle out his response, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” on the margins of the paper from the editorial and loose scraps of paper.
It was a masterpiece, and no summary does it justice, but here is a modest attempt. King defended his nonviolent resistance to racism as a proper moral response to breaking unjust laws. Responding to the charge that he was not from Birmingham, and thus, these issues were not his problem, he eloquently responded the often quoted, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Written in a filthy jail cell was a message of wisdom for the ages that has inspired millions around the world.
Four months later, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered another message even more well known, his “I Have a Dream” speech. It was delivered on August 28, 1963, at the end of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Arguably one of the greatest speeches in American history, it is ironic that the part that is most quoted was not part of the original speech!
Several competing civil rights groups had emerged in the 1950s, and though Martin Luther King Jr. was the biggest name in the group, there were others who also wanted their moment in the sun, so to speak, at this great national gathering. King was relegated to the very end of the line of speakers, and asked to provide some ten minutes or so of “closing remarks.”
The speech that King crafted showed true touches of genius. First, the setting — he knew he would be standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, which has the Gettysburg Address engraved on his statue, so King’s first line of his speech makes reference to him. “Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” In an incredibly subtle way, King was referring to the Gettysburg Address, “Four score and seven years ago…” which dates back to 1776. So in one sentence, King was able to link the Declaration of Independence, which asserted, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and to his address before that crowd in Washington, D.C. in August of 1963.
From there, Martin Luther King Jr. gave as close to a perfect speech as could be given, from a background of the past to a description of the present, and then a hope for the future. When he delivered it, it was late afternoon, and the crowd had been listening to speeches for hours under a hot August sun. Yet, despite their fatigue and the late hour, the crowd was being visibly moved, and as King’s speech was wrapping up, it was obvious they wanted to hear more.
King writes in his autobiography that he “felt” something, and Mahalia Jackson, the singer who had been sitting behind him and had accompanied him on many of his rallies, piped up behind him, like in church, and said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” It was just the push he needed. And just like that, Martin Luther King Jr. went off script. He began reciting a stump speech that he had used a number of times before, but now, in the context of everything he had said before; it had a ring that has never stopped ringing. Quoting the Bible, classic American songs, as well as old Negro spirituals, and repeating, again and again, the concept of a dream that would be fulfilled in the full meaning of freedom and equality, King spoke a truth that resonates as loudly today as it did when he spoke it.
It is great that Martin Luther King Jr. has a day set aside to his remembrance, but if that is all it is, it is a terrible waste. Rather than remembrance, he deserves reflection — as his life, example, and powerful words provide valuable lessons of life for us personally and as a nation as a whole.