Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – A True Leader

In the textbook The Leadership Experience, Richard L. Daft describes a charismatic leader as a person having “the ability to inspire and motivate people to do more than they would normally do, despite obstacles and personal sacrifice” (359).  He characterizes a transformational leader as having “the ability to bring about significant change in followers…” (356)  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a multi-faceted leadership style that incorporated elements of both charismatic and transformational leadership as well as ethicality; these elements played a key role in his success as an advocate for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born into a highly religious family on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia (“Martin Luther King Jr.” 1).  His father was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, just like his grandfather had been.  King attended a segregated public high school, and left part way through his time there in order to enroll at Morehouse College, where he would receive a degree in sociology (Downing 150).  During his time at Morehouse College, King was greatly influenced by the mentorship of a man named Howard Thurman.  Thurman helped King to see the inequality and social injustice that ran rampant in American society, and he also sparked King’s interest in the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi (Thurman 254).  King was so inspired by Gandhi that he flew to India to meet him.  While he was there, Gandhi taught King about non-violent resistance.  King later used his newly acquired knowledge in protests as he began working towards equality in society.

In 1955, segregation was very prominent in society because of the creation of the Jim Crow Laws.  These laws stated that blacks and whites had to use separate public facilities; they also created an unspoken law regarding the segregation of public transportation (Carter 1).  In March of 1955, a young woman named Rosa Parks stepped onto a bus and sat in the front row.  When asked by the driver to move to the back of the bus in order to accommodate a white passenger, she refused.  Parks was then placed under arrest (Kennedy 1017).  This sparked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of a bus boycott, which would play a key role in the Civil Rights Movement.

At the time, King was President of the Montgomery Improvement Association.  On the night that Rosa Parks was to be tried, he gave a powerful speech urging all people to boycott the public transportation system (Kennedy 1021).  This was an ethical solution because it did not involve violence.  By not using public transportation, such as buses, people would have to find other ways to get to work or wherever else they needed to go.  King suggested other options of transportation, like walking, running, biking, or carpooling.  This demonstrated King’s ability to be a charismatic leader.  In spite of the difficulty his suggestion would cause the members of the black community, King was able to persuade the majority of them to boycott the system anyway, in the hope of making progress towards changing the laws on segregation.

King’s strong influence on the members of the community was greatly helped by his oratory skills.  Although he was not able to transform the thoughts of the community, he was able to gain mass support for the cause through his enthusiasm; many blacks had believed that the boycott would not last, but it continued to do so (Carson 449).  The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted from December 5, 1955 to December 21, 1956, a total of 382 days (Kennedy 1022).  This was far more effective than even King could have hoped because it created a bond within the black community and instilled the belief that change was possible.

The success of the boycott can also be attributed to King’s understanding and wide-spread use of the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi.  Gandhi advocated for what he called non-violent resistance.  This ethical method of resistance involved peaceful protest, and closely aligned with King’s religious beliefs (Huggins 480).  King was raised by a very religious Christian family, which had a tremendous influence on his upbringing and values.  He was taught through the Christian faith that violence was never the answer to a problem; there was always another solution.  King’s idea of boycotting the public transportation system in Montgomery worked well because of the fact that it was non-violent.  In taking part in this protest, the members of the black community were not committing a crime, and therefore, could not be arrested.  They were simply making a statement that if they continued to be treated poorly, they would find other means of transportation.

The most famous example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership style came on August 28, 1963 when he marched on Washington, D.C. with 300,000 supporters, and delivered his “I Have a Dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (Alvarez 337).  King spoke about racial inequality and his hope that one day racial discrimination would end.  He brilliantly incorporated phrases and ideas from the United States Constitution, the National Anthem, Shakespeare, and even the Holy Bible (Alvarez 342).  For example, King stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”  This is a direct quote from the United States Constitution.  King used this statement to prove a point, just as he did with all of his references.  King portrayed that upon the foundation of America, the Constitution was created in order to establish the fundamental rights of every human being and to ensure that everyone would be seen as an equal.  No one person would be treated any differently from another.  Though this is written in the Constitution, the United States government of the 1960s did not abide by it.  King explained that black men and white men should both be treated equally, and he shared his dream that one day his children would live in a land where everyone would enjoy freedom and would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character (Alvarez 355).

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech revealed in him clear transformational leadership qualities and ethical character.  His speech exposed the many flaws of American society and suggested that drastic changes needed to be made in order to achieve the social justice and personal liberty that America’s founders intended for our country with the drafting of the Constitution (King 6).  King’s speech also addressed the flawed economic system of the United States, stating that it advocated materialism and wrongly placed the focus on property instead of people.  King was trying to transform the beliefs of the general population and inspire people to take action on their own.  The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 following King’s “I Have a Dream” speech serves as proof that King was effective in promoting the ideals that he envisioned for society.  If nothing else, he made people think and question why things were the way they were.

Two more examples of King’s leadership are his protest speeches in opposition of the Vietnam War.  The war had begun in 1959 under President Lyndon B. Johnson (Fairclough 1).  Although King was opposed to the war, he waited until April 4, 1967 to publicly express his views; on this date, King gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech (Darby, Rowley 43-44).  King’s biggest criticism of the war was the fact that the United States was “fighting for freedom” in Vietnam, when blacks were not free at home.  He stated that money currently being used for the war in Vietnam could be better used to fight poverty at home, which he believed to be one of the many causes of racism and social inequality.

King gave his second protest speech, “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam” on February 25, 1967 (King 12).  He began by stating that the United States was in violation of a United Nations’ charter because of the war against the Viet Cong.  He continued by stating, “In 1967, only 31 percent of eligible whites were inducted compared to 67 percent of eligible blacks” (Darby, Rowley 44).  For this reason, more blacks than whites were being killed in the Vietnam War.  King believed this to be evidence of the “manipulation of the poor.”  Black soldiers were being added to the draft more frequently than white soldiers, which was unethical.

These two speeches by King were very ambitious due to the scale and nature of the issue he was combating.  During times of war, people usually have adamant positions either for or against the war.  This makes it very difficult to influence peoples’ opinions on the subject.  King was able to slightly shift public opinion, but the majority of people still favored the war; this was a small victory for King.  He was successful because he created an emotional impact by appealing to the hearts and minds of the people, especially with his speech on the casualties of the war.  Speaking about the safety of soldiers brings emotions to the surface very easily.   King was widely criticized as having gone too far with these speeches; critics believed that King did not have the right to speak out against the war.

The final example of King’s leadership occurred in New York on April 15, 1967, when King attended and supported the largest peace demonstration in the history of the United States (Darby, Rowley 46).  King estimated that a crowd of 450,000 people showed up to the rally.  Its purpose was to stop the fighting in Vietnam.  At the rally, King revealed the hypocrisy of the American government, which advocated for democracy, yet supported a dictator in the Vietnam War (King 14). He also portrayed his personal belief that violence would not solve the problems in Vietnam.  King then outlined what needed to be changed in order for the war to end.

Again, King’s efforts were somewhat futile because he was in opposition of an issue that people had strong opinions on.  King did his best to sway public opinion against the war by showing how hypocritical the government’s actions were.  King most strongly exhibited aspects of transformational leadership when he voiced a list of changes that he believed could end the war; this proposed solution gave people hope and supported the idea that the war could end without any more violence.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 (King 17).  He had envisioned a utopian society where everyone was equal, and he had worked toward that goal for the entirety of his adult life.  King’s leadership style contained elements of charismatic, transformational, and ethical leadership, which were deeply rooted in his values as a Christian.  Many of the societal changes that occurred during his lifetime cannot be attributed directly to him because he was only one of many civil rights activists, but we know for sure that he had a strong influence on the people and helped to push America in the right direction.

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